Archive for category Family

It’s the Little Things in Marriage

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My friend Gint Aras ran my essay on turning off the lights and finding common ground in marriage, Why Won’t My Wife Turn Off the Lights, over at the Marriage section of The Good Men Project. Gint said this: “You’d think there should be a simple answer to the age-old fight between husbands and wives over the use, necessary or not, of household appliances. Personally, I don’t know why my wife leaves the lights on in the basement. I have my theories. Robert Duffer, Families Editor at The Good Men Project, dissects the problem and offers a serene bit of sense.”

Do check it out.

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Addressing Death, as a Parent and a Son

On Death Loneliness and Goldfish

Talking to my kids about death was the first step in listening to the loneliness evoked by loss

Day three of single parenting and I want to do something big after picking up the kids from school. Something fun. Something social. Anything but go back to the house and its static winter silence.

Seems like a big weekend. The schoolyard buzzing with weekend plans. Some of my first grader’s friends and their dads rushing to their first overnight adventure as Cub Scouts. I was a little envious. Not of their plan, but of having a plan at all.

The daddy-daughter dance is the next night. Weeks earlier, she shot me down. You’d think the terror of embarrassment would’ve ended with high school. It might’ve been my method, casually over breakfast instead of getting down on a knee and handing her a bowl of chocolate ice cream with an invitation inscribed in sprinkles. Might not have mattered. She’d seen me “dance” to Led Zeppelin one too many times. Once is one too many times.

On the walk home, usually my favorite part of the day where we dawdle and play and recap our days, the old loneliness settled in. Amidst these people I see everyday, in the hometown I returned to for the community, I don’t know anyone well enough—or convenient enough—to call up and play, adults and kids, together and separate. Or for those with plans, I projected these fantastic family adventures with parents who would probably appreciate my night of nothing. Doesn’t matter that we had a two-night ski trip the weekend before. This illogical mood deepens because I’m inadequate not just socially but as a parent; I haven’t given the kids an option either. But this isn’t the source I’m avoiding. They want their mom and I want my best friend, who has gone home to Philly where her grandmother, who raised her like a daughter, had been waiting to die.

So we went home. Put a cork in my self-pitying bullshit. Played hockey in the basement, fiddled with Legos. Amused ourselves. This is what I wanted—a distraction from the self-examination evoked by death; from the seeking—for meaning, connection, validity, whatever—that results from loneliness.

God, who cast man in his likeness, has an uncannily human sense of metaphor and story.

That morning, after breakfast, I told the kids that GG died. Their adaptability to any news amazes me, but it was their understanding that floored me. When I said she was in heaven, Ria, who was doted on as much as any great grandmother could, corrected me: “No, Dad, she’s in here,” touching her chest, “and over here,” gesturing over her shoulder, smiling coyly before running off.

I didn’t know my son was feeling anything until dinner tonight.

“Doesn’t it make you sad, Ria? You should be sad.”

From the range I was about to interject but then heard him say, “I almost cried this morning.”

“You did?” I asked, treading carefully.

“Kinda. My eyes got all hot.”

We talked about what happened–and what happens–over quesadillas. They were worried about Mom. She didn’t think GG would die. She had gone out there to boost her spirits and get her out of the hospital, show videos and tell stories of the kids, a strategy that had worked a half-dozen times before. Not this time. A day after Heather’s arrival, GG demanded hospice. She was tired of fighting, I told them.

They mentioned the fish. Just last week, Heather, a heart nurse who never lets anything go, took multiple trips to the pet store and the library and Google to resuscitate one of our four goldfish, who’d been hovering near the top of the tank, alive but unswimming. Diagnosis: swim bladder. Lots of causes, one remedy: Gotta feed the fish manually. Fish refused all her ministrations. Next morning, dead. There was a eulogy. I played TAPS. Flush. Best thing about those fish is teaching the kids the cycle of life.

I didn’t share with them the text Heather had sent at 2:20am, not three hours before GG passed:

“Fish with swim belly. GG with a clot in her belly. A Nor’ Easter named Nemo whirling outside this tank of a hospice room. Maybe God does have a sense of humour.”

Aside from autocorrect being British, we glean that God, who cast man in his likeness, has an uncannily human sense of metaphor and story.

The connection they made with the fish blew my mind. We shared memories, we made lists of things we remembered, we facetimed with the Philly folk. What I couldn’t explain to the kids, what I’ve slowly been coming to all day, is this idea of loneliness. It is this reconciliation I wanted to avoid tonight, or at least forestall by surrounding myself with life. What is loneliness if not the consciousness of death? The fear of death is the fear of being alone; it’s why the faiths are filled with promises of eternal communion: believe in me and you will never walk alone.

This is Heather’s first major death, which is made even tougher for a woman who keeps people from dying for a living. It doesn’t matter that GG, who lived 82 years and with whom we were able to share her last Thanksgiving, whose hand Heather got to hold and say goodbye to, went out in an ideal way, quickly and in her sleep. Doesn’t matter. Now comes what my brother calls The Hardening.

It’s been 16 years since our mom died. She was 52. I was 21. My first major. Subsequent grievings are involuntarily compared to and pale to it. Maybe it’s that way with mothers. I hope to know nothing more about it. She had two remissions over three years then an interminable hospice. When her physical form finally passed I was free. I traveled, then I returned when the loneliness shifted from beautiful to dangerous. With each sojourn I’d get more distance, building up the confidence to live without anyone, making no commitments and keeping no connections. Being on my own, fully and freely, meant I could live without that insatiable, capricious pain of loss. Being alone meant I was in control. It didn’t take long to reconcile that trying to live without love sucks. That love leads to loss and loss leads to pain. The Hardening is the mature acceptance of our mortality, the resignation to all things transient, and learning to embrace the pain of loss.

It will be a while before Heather’s sets. The acuteness will fade but the hole will never disappear. It’s not something to get over; the feeling of loss—what we call loneliness—is something you come to appreciate as a reminder of what was there. I remind her of this via text, middle of the night, but I’m really reminding myself so I can better frame it for the kids, or better understand life and loss now as a father and a son. When we share pictures, we tell stories, we play out memories, however clumsily, we are listening to that hole of loss, listening to what it is saying. That hole is the sound of loneliness. It is a good thing; not an easy thing, most certainly not a bad thing. We must listen. Because the alternative is silence.

—first appeared at the Dads & Families section of the Good Men Project

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Giving Holiday Thanks to the Little Griswald

Minivan Man

Still, the aggravation of air travel is a statistically safer trip than by car.

Little Griswald has made it home safe and sound from another coastal road trip. The 2002 Honda Odyssey now has 140k miles, and more love than I could ever express here. (Though I’ve tried, and my website borders on the absurd.) We bought it three years ago, and when you consider the cost of airfare that we’ve saved in four major, 2,000+ mile roadtrips, then it’s like we’re driving a free car.

We took over the torch of regular, diligent service from the original owners, who kept meticulous records including every oil change, and have been treated to an inestimably safe and reliable vehicle. This transcends the numbers—the typical cost-benefit analysis I use for all things purchased. My wife drove with our kids from Chicagoland to her dad’s outside of Atlantic City over Thanksgiving. Our kids, five and six, have been flying since they were three months old and have become intrepid travelers: they have pushed us to drive through the night, to keep going till we get there, to get over our adult discomforts. I think my son likes it because the restrictions on his video game time are relaxed; my daughter, I think she likes having all of us at ready access to play Uno or get silly with. Despite this, driving sixteen hours without being able to manage what’s going on in the back seat is a feat of fortitude like no other. My wife didn’t complain once, at least not to me, who was worried on the phone but otherwise safely ensconced at home.

It’s remarkable to consider, and awesome to reflect on now that we’ve returned home. I surprised her to tears by flying out on Thanksgiving proper so I could be with my family and help drive home. I really don’t know how she did it. I’ve driven over a thousand miles by myself many times before, but never with two kids. The joke was that she really wanted to drive solo so she could justify unlimited coffee all day long. The truth is the airline industry fucking sucks, and if you’re going to have a two-hour delay, which seems standard for holiday air travel, then you might as well add a couple hours to your trip to have total control and know what to expect. (In 2010 the USA Today reported: From 2003 through 2009, 22.3% of flights were late, canceled or diverted nationwide. The rate shot up to 33.4% for the winter holiday period during those same years. That means passengers during the winter holidays were nearly 50% more likely to have their travel itineraries disrupted. )

Still, the aggravation of air travel is a statistically safer trip than by car. Lil’ Gris’ is ten years old, and for as dull as the destination-driven road trip can become after the second hour, it is fraught with peril and unpredictability. My son reported a long delay due to a three car accident, in which he saw a pick-up truck on its hood on the turnpike outside of Philadelphia.

On our way home we encountered the first snow storm of the season in the Allegheny Mountains in northern Appalachia. My wife was driving when I awoke and saw an accident on the eastbound side of I-80. Several cars had spun out, and were now in the process of being cranked from the ditch and loaded onto carrier bed tow trucks. Fortunately, there was nothing too grisly except for what followed: a five-mile traffic jam backed up to the nearest exit ramp. Drivers were standing, pacing, cursing in the snow, with absolutely no place to go. The visibility wasn’t that bad, the snow was wet, there was no ice. It takes so little for that to happen, one text, one dropped cd, one glance back at two bickering kids.

Then you see all the cars sidelined by seasonal and vehicular maladies, imagining how it would play out given the current circumstances, and you can’t help put praise your car. But Lil’ Gris is just a machine, an object, a thing. The gratitude one feels from a problem-free road trip is praised at a bumper much greater than the Honda Odyssey. Thank St. Christopher, or fleet-footed Hermes, or whatever deities of travel that make the best thing about a road trip—leaving home—balanced with the best thing about the return trip, getting home.

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Hunting for Dad: Rites, Rituals, and the Tribe

I’ve been wanting to get this article published for a while. It means a lot to me because the hunt means so much to the guys who let me invade their space for three days last year, and because the family is dear to me. I don’t expect to do it justice, but it’s a shot. It’ll be serialized over three parts. Here’s a tease:

Family makes annual pilgrimage to hunt deer and bury the ashes of the patriarch

The winds are supposed to get up to 50 mph. The hunt may be cut short because the high winds confuse the deer, throw their senses for a loop, so they bed down to keep safe. In this case, the deer are smarter than the hunters.

We’re twenty-five feet in the air, suspended between two oaks on a sheet of plywood reinforced by joists braced on either side of both trees. We face each other, our backs against our respective trees, the rifle hung from the hook above Tom’s head. He built this stand, along with his dad, who we are here to bury. It’s been hours since we spoke, and the only thing we’ve heard since daybreak was the mad warbling of turkeys, like a gang of women in the kitchen as holiday guests start to arrive. And the wind.

It roars like a waterfall over the ridges and down the valleys, unimpeded by the thick November woods. The gusts cyclone leaves on the ground back up into the air and when it dies down, you shouldn’t relax. The tree stand rocks like a small boat in a big lake and, earlier in the morning, sleeping off last night’s arrival, I napped in a ball at my friend’s feet, awakened by the sense that I was going to pitch over the side. He’s sitting up against the tree now, nodding off like you’re supposed to, always at the ready. That’s how you do it, even in the extended daydream that can be a slow day of hunting.

It’s day one of the hunting season, a day that’s taken a year to arrive for these guys, in a week fraught with more meaning than in any of the decades preceding the family ritual. I’ve never hunted, don’t have a rifle or a permit, so for now I’m content to observe, eager for getting down to the ground and to the cooler for lunch. We’ll meet up on top of the ridge, with Dave, the son-in-law real estate lawyer whose built like a defensive lineman. We moved his tree stand earlier, and if he wasn’t a relative newcomer I’d think he could hoist the metal store-bought stand by himself. We’ll also meet up with Mike and his teenage daughter. When we picked her up the day before, she emerged from her high school with a boy who quickly peeled away. She wore a mid-thigh skirt, and an unzipped fleece jacket flapping in the wind. Now she’ll be covered in Carhartt camouflage, an orange jacket, and with one of her dad’s rifles, the metamorphosis complete. Mike, the eldest son-in-law, is a picture of zen. He recently sold his flooring business—the knees only last so long—and joined his wife in her home office as a mortgage broker. Like the Dude, he abides, and his easy going manner belies a profound, spiritual intellect that makes him the go-to guy for answers.

I want to get the hell down out of the wind and stretch my legs, meet up with the guys to understand what it is about the northern part of Missouri that attracts them, and what it is about hunting that connects these men in some profound way spiritually, geographically, ecologically, and as a tribe.

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Pig Face Hangs Up His Mask

Grandpa prankster shifts strategies in scaring another generation

Pig face is retired. The man behind the mask is not. His grandchildren might breathe easier.

The man behind the mask is Duff, and Halloween is known as Duff Day. As a scare persona that he often kept balled in his pocket like antacids, Duff’s Pig Face is relatively new but effective. Pig Face appeared behind closet doors, on back porches, in basement recesses. Two grandsons will not come to the door unless they see their grandfather standing in full sight, waving him in. They’ve been scarred by a knock-off Texas Chainsaw Massacre pig mask and a grandfather that knows no limits. Cruel and unusual? Not in our family.

Our instinct to protect our children led to a soft rebuke, at best, because our dad was born on Halloween and, in the mornings of his youth, Duff would often find his toe tied to his big brother’s toe, their grandfather snickering silently in the corner. It’s in the family DNA and, as his children, we were used to it.

Corners weren’t safe in our house. Neither was the tub with the curtain drawn. Washing dishes, according to my sister, meant he’d jump up behind from the opening between the kitchen sink and the dining room. Dare to retrieve something from the pantry, which was connected to the crawlspace, which always had mice, and the door would slam: he was able to throw his shoe, from his recliner across the room, over your shoulder against the door. It was practiced like any skill. To this day, it’s easier to sleep on my right side because my left side faced the window that terrified my brother, the window that he glimpsed in the vampire movie Salem’s Lot, that provoked him to hide behind the couch and caused our mother to force our dad to turn it off. Duff promised to climb a ladder up to our window, to give the vampires easier access. This was our normal.

We had a presence in our house, the Ghost of John, who was to blame for any strange noises, and who hung out on the kitchen light fixture, what my sister describes as a “weird gooey guy with green half pants.” I vaguely remember the figure but the Ghost of John—as a presence—lives on in our home, with our kids, who blame silly John for the noises and knocks that might otherwise have scared them.

Our children’s metaphoric skin is thick, like Pig Face. Though we are no longer fun for Duff, his grandkids surprised him this Halloween: Pig Face was as scary as a squirrel. With so much competing for their attention, the grandkids were not scared.  Our son has learned the joys of the scare, and also of the disappointment. His attempts at scaring his aunt—around corners, from behind doors—failed, and her response caused him the most trouble. “I grew up with Duff,” she explained. Attempts at scaring the Grand Pooh-Bah of scare have been met with loving mockery. Inspired by Leonardo the Terrible Monster, who is not good at scaring, the boy has had to seek out new victims. That makes Duff proud, and intent on finding a new mask.

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Holding Time in a Midwestern Fall

Ever catch leaves? It’s damn fun, the kind of fun only a five-year-old daughter can get me to have.

Check out the latest at the GMP. C’mon, it’s just one more click.

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Kicking it with the Coach

I volunteered my wife to coach our son’s first-grade soccer team. Yes, I’ve had better ideas, and no, it was not done with cruel intent. It was the opposite: she’s been wanting to get into coaching since she graduated college as a Division II captain of her field hockey team. As a full-time nurse and a fuller-time mother, there was never the time, never the time. So I was being thoughtful.

For the first month I regretted my thoughtfulness. Working four ten-hour shifts plus obligatory call that can derail any planning or expectations of routine, she’s been staying up til midnight, surely unable to focus on the blur of semicircles and rectangles on her soccer diagrams. She studied: weekends with Google and copious print outs of Xs and Os; a library bag full of books like The Practical Guide to Youth Soccer Coaching and The Confident Coach’s Guide to Teaching Youth Soccer (those are the only two keepers worthy of renewal); she even rented instructional movies guised as entertainment, films so embarrassing that even the kids asked to turn it off. Each week she devotes hours of prep time for the one hour of practice and 45 minutes of game time each week. She bought cones and goals, water coolers and snacks, and she sends bi-weekly emails to the seven other parents breaking down practice pointers and lauding gameday individual and team accomplishments. It’s fucking nuts. Other parents—other coaches—are satisfied by showing up.

And since she has practice on the one day she’s home—the one day I’m at work—and since the gametimes overlap with our daughter’s soccer games, The Coach pretty much does it on her own. One team had four or five dads running drills before kick off, and the team played like they’ve been together since diapers. She didn’t know any of our son’s teammates, but her sideline is full of mothers filling cups, lacing cleats, heating bodies, cheering loudly, and most of all, praising the Coach.

On Saturday, three weeks of prep and experience paid off with the first victory of her young coaching career. For the rest of the weekend, there was a glow in her eyes, an easier smile, a skip in her step. Winning was nice—it always is—but the remarkable occurrence was how much these six-year olds had learned in such a brief time. They knew their zones, knew when to look for the pass or the shot, knew when to charge and when to fall back on defense. In the email that followed, the Coach identified how each player had improved and contributed, same as she had done after the previous two losses. The mothers have been effusive, and the kids are buying into what the Coach is selling.

“I want to play soccer every day,” our son said later that day, unsolicited and unprompted. “You know how much better I’ll get? Wanna play?”

Sure, kid. But this time I won’t volunteer Mom to be Coach again. The other parents already have.  

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Day trippin’ and sand surfing: a family day at the beach

 

Even on its windiest days, Chicago’s stretch of Lake Michigan doesn’t have the kind of rolls you need to surf. It has waves, choppy, intermittent, and oftentimes violent. It is a reflection of its environs, sometimes majestic, sometimes menacing, reliably unpredictable, never surfable. Lake Michigan is so much greater than Chicago.

On the other side of that shapeshifting mirror, there was surfing. So she was told. For a girl who surfed both coasts and was now a landlocked Midwestern, the grail of this mystical third coast was worth pursuing.

She awoke at four a.m. to load the van, whip up her slumbering husband and her wayward mother, rouse her two kids, and inspire her teenage brother with tales of the surf, and take us all around the southernmost tip of the Great lakes to a lone surfshop in New Buffalo, then on up the shore to Warren Dunes State Park in Michigan.

A mere eighty-five miles from Chicago, the Dunes rose more than twenty stories above the shore, a massive mountain of sand set against a clear blue shoreline far removed from any industry. Yet there was a strange calm, an anomalous unwindy day, presage for the storms to come, perhaps, creating conditions for surfing in the imagination only.

The fish in her would not be deterred.  She rented a paddle board, essentially a wide flat surfboard to stand on and to be navigated and propelled with a paddle. And she rented two sand boards, snowboards for the sand, so she and her brother could surf down the dunes. By this point, the lack of waves didn’t matter: everyone was made happy by the balm of the beach and the panacea of wide open water, which the boy referred to as “the pool.”

And it was lovely, clean, clear, cool, a baptismal font that washes away your workaday worries and returns to the state of grace of existing in the moment. The beach was crowded but because it was so expansive it was not Chicago crowded. You had your own space right on the shoreline, and there was no one jostling, bumping, jumping, or thrown into you.

We played Frisbee on the sandbar, monkeyed in the middle, kick boarded, paddle boarded, body boarded, swam with the fishes, her husband took a nap, her kids slid down a three-story bounce-house water slide, her mother frolicked and boarded, her brother and her surfed the grudging dunes. Then the sky went black, the wind whipped umbrellas and gear, horizontal fingers of sand and storm strafed the beach, and everyone ran for cover. The PA warned of tornadoes. There was flash flooding. An hour later it passed. Night came. Ninety minutes later we were home.

In a summer full of highlights, three generations got to have a day at the beach. We’ll be back, surfboards optional.

 

 

 

 

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The kids’ first Sox game; a first for a Cubs dad

No pictures of the kids with Wrigley’s mascot, Drunk Bro

Took my kids to their first White Sox game last night. At the Cell. They’re six and almost five. This is the first year we haven’t been to Wrigley.

We bought them Sox t-shirts. I wore my Cubs hat. We were giving them a choice.

We brought my mother- and brother-in-law, who we’ve never taken to Wrigley.

Tickets were half-price. There were $7 seats. We went big: bleachers for $17. We would’ve paid the same for our six Sox tickets as one Wrigley bleacher ticket. We tailgated with Izzys and Shandys. We supped at Freddie’s in Bridgeport.

Four solo home runs were hit to our section; two were followed by fireworks. I spent fifteen minutes effusing how awesome pitcher Chris Sale’s play was by stuffing the go-ahead suicide(safety?) squeeze attempt by the Royals in the 8th. I cheered for the Sox. Multiple times. I accepted the jeers at my hat.

Though the kids were not allowed to play in the awesome kids FUNdamentals area (they were wearing sandals—rookies!), they were engaged the whole game and did not ask to leave once. The White Sox were not the only winners.

We were home by 10pm.

Still, I prefer Wrigley.

I am a Cubs fan. Surprisingly, last night I rooted for the Sox. Can you cheer both? Sure. Can you love them both equally? No. These are not your kids.

I respect the Sox and appreciate the park, and as a father The Cell is a better all-around experience. But as a baseball fan, Wrigley is better. All the criticisms Sox fans have about Wrigley could be said about the Cell, so let’s move beyond that. Because it’s so old, so outdated, Wrigley is about the baseball. It is less amusement park than modern parks. This is not always a good thing, especially with young kids. The only thing to do at Wrigley is watch the game. (And for many, get hammered in the sun.) Because the seats are so tight, because there’s nothing to do but watch baseball, because there is full and necessary immersion in the park and its neighborhood, games at Wrigley are more intimate, are more of a shared experience, than at places like The Cell. For good or bad, you get to know the people around you, the fans (ideally). That, and the game itself, the great green spread of grass, are the main reasons you go. While the experience at the Cell was great, a game at Wrigley is better. Purer. I admit this while also admitting that the Cubs will not win a world series until they obliterate Wrigley.

There’s nothing simple about being a baseball fan in Chicago.

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Summer’s game

As hard as it looks

Baseball isn’t boring anymore. The game hasn’t changed, nor has MLB done much aside from adapt to the times. The change has happened in the backyard.

This isn’t some nostalgic piece about the faraway summers of my youth or some softbellied naval gazing on how fatherhood has restored the essence of a game. Ok, it might be, but it’s mainly about baseball.

My six-year-old boy and four-year-old girl are both enrolled in park district baseball and both are disappointed. The boy because they don’t count runs, don’t keep outs, and ignore strikes. My daughter because she only gets to bat once, and that’s off a T. Just about every day this summer, the real game has been in the backyard.

The smack of the ball on leather, the ting of the aluminum bat, the backyard trees as makeshift bases and the hedgerow as a homerun fence—all of these have endeared the game’s charms once again. I used to love baseball as a kid, hoped with the same intensity that a premiere player waited in the powdery wax of a pack of cards as much as some kids at the park needing my glove to even out the sides. Like collecting baseball cards, the game itself became slow, boring, and unimpressive. Like most teenage boys I admired speed, power, bodily grace and mental domination, nothing that is obvious in baseball. This might be why football has become America’s most popular spectator sport, judging by marketers and bookmakers at least. It is so American that we’ve taken the world’s definition of football and changed it completely. How many meters was that field goal, anyway?

Despite the preeminence of football as a national gambling pastime, baseball is the ultimate summer pastime. Baseball is slow and doesn’t demand much: the rules are simple, you don’t have to be fit to play, you can sit on your ass for long stretches of time, and go ahead, have a chew or a smoke. I am not referring to the spectators. For these same reasons, though, ballfields draw a crowd no matter what age or level. Parks are at their peak capacity during baseball season.

What’s the draw? The kids. By watching my kids’ games and my older nephew’s games, I truly appreciate how physically complex it is to turn a grounder, to react to the ball off the bat, predict its location and respond accordingly—in a split second—then to glove it and throw it on target and on pace to beat the runner…it is an awesome play to behold, a spike of action where the crowd holds its collective breath, and perhaps justification for the salaries of pros who make such a thing seem routine. Consider the hand-eye coordination on both ends of the ball, the timing and singularity of each ball, thrown or struck. Kids respond with wonder, and parents with embarrassing cheers. Having a catch is not a simple summer day on a lazy river, back and forth, over and over. Not initially. (And yes, I have recently adopted “having a catch” in place of its sloppier Midwestern idiom of “playing catch”.)

Having a catch or watching a ball game might be the perfect summer night, out in the grass, near dusk, the crack of the bat, the collective breath held.

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