Thursday, April 25, 2013

Swing, Batter!

I love spring, especially when it's accompanied by a decent Red Sox team.

Baseball is my favorite sport. I played Little League and Babe Ruth as a kid, as well as countless pick-up games with my older brother and anywhere from one to six of the Keegan brothers who were our best friends growing up. The boys ranged in age from 3 years younger than me to 10 or 12 years older.

On the cusp of turning 40, I decided to try playing again, after 25 years away. I tried out for an over-40 league in Boston, got picked for a team based out of Quincy, and for the next five years had a great time reliving my youth. Sure, I got hurt a few times, and my team wasn't that good, but I had a blast.

I left baseball behind when my son, Owen, decided he might want to try Little League. He and I had been playing quite a bit of front-yard whiffle ball at that point, and I told him he should make the move to baseball.

He was unsure, though, until I told him I would help coach his team. So, in the spring of 2010, he made his debut on the diamond, and I made my debut behind the bench.

I co-coached with a great guy named Bruce, and between the two of us, along with a handful of helpful dads, we had a fun and somewhat productive season. I couldn't have been happier that Owen was playing alongside some of his friends. It just felt good to be out there on the field, teaching the game to a new generation.

Owen skipped summer ball that year, but played in the fall. There are fewer teams for fall ball, which meant there wasn't one for me to coach. Owen landed on a team helmed by the fathers of two of his classmates. I was more than happy to watch from the sidelines. Owen struggled at the plate, but made some plays in the field and had a good time.

He played again in the spring of 2011, once again coached by other dads. His interest was flagging, but he stuck with it. He and I continued to play whiffle ball in the yard.

He decided to try summer ball that year, and once again I offered that I would help coach. As it turned out, I ended up as head coach, which wasn't the position I was hoping for. I knew Owen's interest was a bit low, so I'd wanted to just help out, in case he decided to drop out.

Two dads whom I'd never met before coached the first two games, because we were on vacation. After that, either one or both of them showed up to help out. Our team was definitely a bit like the Bad News Bears. Some of the kids had never played baseball before; others, like Owen, weren't that into it. And a few enjoyed playing, but would whine and complain if they didn't get to pitch, or play the position they wanted.

We had one girl on our team, and like in "Bad News Bears," she was one of our best players. She only played half the season, however, before going away for the summer.

The season ended on a low note, as I couldn't get Owen to attend the final game with me, and we only had 6 or 7 players.

It's been almost two years since Owen last played baseball. But we have continued, somewhat regularly, to play whiffle ball in our front yard. This season, the dynamics have shifted.

Owen, who's almost 11, has gotten bigger and stronger, and can now pummel most of the pitches I throw. Granted, I'm not bringing my "A game" from the mound, but it's cool to see him getting better.

We've also been joined by a few neighborhood kids, which means that I often get to take a break and hang out with adults in the neighborhood.

A few weeks ago, after playing with a few of these kids, Owen said to me, "We should have a neighborhood whiffle ball game."

"What a great idea!" I told him. So we sent out an Evite, and this Sunday we'll gather on a field at a former school across the street from our neighborhood, and play with kids and grown-ups from our road and nearby streets.

I'll admit that I was bummed when Owen lost interest in playing baseball. I envisioned going to his games, eating snack shack burgers and commiserating with the other parents about how the team was doing. I imagined watching him develop into a better player, having loads of fun and learning about teamwork.

But that didn't happen.

He likes whiffle ball, and watching the Red Sox with me, both of which are great things, especially since I know it won't be long before he moves on from these as well.

I'm just so proud of him for coming up with the idea for a neighborhood game. He worked with me on picking an Evite template, and putting together the invite list. He's got ideas about how the game should go, and he's excited by all of it.

He's growing up, which I find both exciting and frightening (because it means I'm getting old). While baseball didn't turn out to be the sport he wants to play, he has been taking part in a youth track club at the YMCA, so maybe that's something he'll pursue.

No matter which direction he goes, I'll be right behind him. Just one more thing....


Saturday, April 13, 2013

I Heart Vermont

Somehow, we've never taken our kids to Vermont. Amelia's not yet 6, but Owen will be 11 next month and he's never been to the Ben & Jerry's State. Well, we're gonna rectify that.

As a kid, I traveled to Vermont with my family with some regularity. My grandmother lived in Perkinsville, a small village in Weathersfield, just a few miles outside Springfield. She lived on the top floor of a big old house; one of her sisters, Helen, owned the house with her husband, Henry. They lived downstairs.

I loved playing football and whiffle ball with my brother in the driveway, or rolling down the hill in the side yard. I loved looking at my grandmother's old furniture and knick knacks, and staying up late and goofing off in the same room as my brother and sister.

We would sometimes eat at the Idlenot Restaurant in Springfield. Part of a small chain, the eatery was similar to Friendly's. I also recall on at least one occasion stopping by the A&W Root Beer Drive-In to get a drink or snack.

In 1988, on the one-year anniversary of our first date, Beth and I went to Springfield. My grandmother moved out of the Perkinsville house and into my parents' house when I was in high school. I wanted to see what her house looked like, and soak up the atmosphere of a place of which I had great memories. The house had been turned into a bed and breakfast, but wasn't open when we stopped by, but it was cool to see it.

P>Beth and I stayed at a motel not too far away from the house. I thought it was great that we could feed apples to the horses there. Beth didn't want to get too close to them because they had "people teeth." That night, we tried to eat dinner at a restaurant called Penelope's, but discovered after sitting down that it was too expensive. We had a cheese plate and beers, then picked up a pizza and some ice cream on the way back to the motel.

In the ensuing years, Beth and I made a handful of trips further north, to Burlington. We had a great time visiting one of her college roommates, hanging out in bars and shopping for records, clothes and silly souvenirs.

But for some reason, we haven't been in the state in a long, long time.

So tomorrow we're heading up to Smuggler's Notch for a few days with the kids, which will be quite a change from the trip to New York City we've done the last three April vacations.

There's still snow on the ground in Vermont, so we might do some tubing or snow-shoeing. The resort has an indoor entertainment area, so we'll definitely spend some time there. There are also pools, so you know we'll be hanging there.

We also plan to go to Burlington on one day, and to Waterbury another, mostly for the Ben & Jerry's factory tour.

I hope we can find some real Vermont flavor, as well, such as hitting a maple sugaring house or hiking in the beautiful mountains, but I can't guarantee we'll be able to convince the kids to do that.

No matter what we do, it'll be good to return to the Green Mountain State. It's been too long.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Review -- The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America

Reading a memoir about traveling across America, while simultaneously working on the same type of book, can be dangerous, especially when that memoir is written by Bill Bryson, who, in addition to being a best-selling author, is the chancellor of England's Durham University.

The book -- The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America -- is the second of Bryson's I've read, the first being A Walk In the Woods: Rediscovering America On the Appalachian Trail. I really liked the Appalachian Trail book, in which Bryson walked long stretches of the at-times grueling, world-famous trail that runs for approximately 2,200 miles from Georgia to Maine (I wrote a little about the book, and my childhood spent playing amid the trees last year; see February 13, 2012, "Woods").

In A Walk In the Woods, Bryson spins a great tale of traveling with an out-of-shape friend, who provides comic relief. Bryson's descriptions of the wonderment, hardship and fear they faced during their adventure are terrific, as are his portraits of the landscapes through which they pass.

There are times when he gets a bit grumpy about things, understandably so given the challenge he set out for himself. And he gets a bit self-righteous about preservation at times. But overall, I really enjoyed the book.

So I had high hopes for The Lost Continent.

And I was somewhat let down. Sure, Bryson's trademark wit and self-deprecation are there. And his descriptions of the places he visits and travels past, and of people whom he meets, are vivid and funny. But there's a meanness to this book that I wasn't expecting.

Bryson was born in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1951. After dropping out of college and traveling a bit through Europe, he moved to England in 1973. He got married, and he and his wife briefly moved to the States. But in 1977, he moved back to the UK. In 1995, he, his wife and kids moved stateside, to New Hampshire. Then, in 2003, he went back across the pond.

He wrote The Lost Continent during two trips across the States in 1987 and 1988. At that point, he'd been in England for a decade, and was obviously used to the people, the culture, the history, the food, the states of entertainment, retail and travel in the Old Country.

So it's understandable that he'd compare things between the New World and Europe. In the book, he rarely makes direct comparisons between the two worlds, but his harsh statements about how fat and boring he finds most people in the States, and how disappointing he finds many of the points of interest that he visits make it plain that he believes his native land comes up short when held against England, et al.

American are fat. They're stupid. They don't care about real history, only about fake representations at sites designed only to separate you from your money. There's too much landscape in between towns out West. Southern people speak too slowly. On and on he goes.

I'm not gonna lie to you: when I traveled across the country in a van with three friends in 1988 I made many of these same observations. But I expect a world-class writer to do a better job, to get off his high horse and engage with people, and find the stories behind the facades.

Still, I found enjoyment in the book. Bryson's a great writer, funny and observant and quite capable of tying his road trip experiences to moments from his childhood. In fact, the comparisons he draws between trips he took with his parents and siblings to some of the same locations he revisits as an adult, are some of the funniest and most poignant in the book.

Evidently, he returned to Iowa after his father died, and then took the road trip before flying back to England. It makes sense that the stories about his father and family trips are so well done.

I found myself wishing I could travel to some of the places Bryson visited, as well as to revisit some of the spots that I'm writing about in my memoir.

Unlike Bryson, when I traveled from Connecticut down to Florida, across to New Orleans, up to Memphis and out to New Mexico, I wasn't planning on writing a book. Sure, I kept a very basic journal and recorded some conversations on cassette tape, but 25 years after the fact, those sources aren't as complete as I wanted them to be.

In reading Bryson's cross-country tale, I'm jealous of the detail he includes, and the seeming ease with which he makes me laugh. Honestly, though, I'm doing a better job than I ever could have imagined with my memoir. I've spent 11 months on the book, and have arrived at a fairly complete picture of the trip I took, and how I felt about things while on the road. I've also managed to tie in other events from my childhood and from high school and college into the whole affair.

So, I recommend the book, but with the above caveats. And I look forward to reading I'm a Stranger Here Myself: Notes On Returning to America After 20 Years Away, Bryson's book about returning to the U.S. with his family in the mid-'90s.