Saturday, October 1, 2011

Baseball, Father's Day and simple lessons

While cleaning up around the apartment today, I came across this piece I wrote as editor of Business Direct Weekly — later Ann Arbor Business Review — around Father's Day eight-plus years ago. It may be particularly apropos with our Tigers in the playoffs for the first time since 2006.
I've tried to clean up some of the more atrocious writing, and I've added what I hope are less clunky transitions, but the column is otherwise how it ran on June 5, 2003.
It was a warm summer night and the Detroit Tigers were on national TV — back in the day when networks carried baseball during the prime-time hours.

The Toronto Blue Jays were knocking on the Tigers' door in early June, threatening to banish the Detroiters' record 1984 start to the league of could-have-beens.

My mom had gone to bed innings before utilityman Dave Bergman strode to the plate in the bottom of the 10th inning of a tie game. My dad and I, however, held out in the darkened living room, the tension building with each pitch.

Bergman fell behind, as I recall, but eventually took the count full. He then fouled off seven consecutive pitches.

When the last pitch finally flew off his bat, climbing toward the darkness of Tiger Stadium's right-field upper deck, my dad and I bolted from our chairs. It was a moment that defined the season and a memory of unadulterated joy with my typically conservative dad that I'll always cherish.

No, this column isn't really about business. But it is about mentally taking time away from work for more important things — something to keep in mind as we head toward Father's Day or as co-workers' summer vacations cause their workloads to fall onto our shoulders.

Bergman's homer, during the slim couple of weeks that I was home from college, has always seemed like a turning point in my relationship with my dad. Perhaps it was a simple transition from childhood to adulthood.

As my friends' parents saw their jobs melt away in the foundries, metal fabrication shops and auto parts factories, unemployment — defined as those who hadn't already lost hope and exited the workforce — climbed over the 40 percent mark. My dad did whatever it took to stay employed at the shop where he was an industrial motor repairman before the industrial economy collapse of the late 1970s; as the factories that his shop serviced closed their doors, he mowed the lawn of his employer and he made deliveries as the shop shifted from fixing motors to selling new ones.

Through it all, my parents sent four kids to college. My dad coached our sports teams. He drove a packed family station wagon — which included his mother-in-law in the back seat — on at least one weeklong vacation each summer. He and my mom kept vigil at marching band practices and concert band performances.

Every morning, Dad and I would have breakfast together, and every night the family gathered around the dining room table for dinner.

These were subtle lessons; others were more jarring.

I reminded him of one recently, after I called before he entered yet another surgery to find yet another blocked artery — the same problem that was acute enough a couple years ago to force a quadruple bypass.

I had just covered our incredibly ineffective City Commission as a 19-year-old reporter for the local community weekly newspaper, and I had returned home frustrated and ranting about the stupidity of elected officials. I threatened to use my pen as my sword. "Report the news," he chastised, "don't be the news."

There were other lessons about respect, kindness, loyalty, humility and dignity. When one-time Tigers relief ace John Hiller was bounced out of a game late in his career, I booed him from the right-field stands of old Comiskey Park in Chicago. My dad, in a few stern words, let me know that was wrong and, well, just plain stupid.

It's appropriate then that my early Father's Day gift to Dad was a trip to Milwaukee to visit my sister's family and to see the Brewers play Boston. Baseball, it seems, is the string around the family core of our relationship.

A father, my mother once told me, was the best thing she gave my siblings and me. That's an amazingly simple truism in this era when so many parents are prodded to be Super Dads or Super Moms.

Some of the best lessons we teach our children are the simplest — sometimes while sitting and watching the late innings together.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

One Pokémon to Rule Them All

As I throw a playing card marked "Mamoswine" onto the floor, Benny just laughs.
"Are you kidding?" he says, the 7-year-old boy mocking his father. "He's so weak."
Benny slaps one of his cards alongside Mamoswine, a cross between a walrus and a tick that looks like it's been caught in a snowstorm. Or is it Wilford Brimley?
"That was too easy," he says.
"Whoa — wait a minute, ringmaster," I say. "How so? How does Magmortar beat Mamoswine?"
The time has come. I want to know. I want him to know that I am onto his little game.
"Magmortar has 130 life, Daddy," he says.
"But Mamoswine has 140," I retort, with the confidence that my logic surely will pull the curtain back on his charade.
Without a blink of an eye, he asks, "What's 130 minus 70?"
"It's 60 — just like 13 minus 7, but put a zero on the end."
"Oh," he says. "Yeah, Magmortar wins."
Sure, he may have wiggled out this time, but I'm working my way inside the world of Pokémon, like a CIA agent infiltrating the KGB. I'm learning their language, their ways, their code for moving messages back and forth.
Pokémon — is the plural form "Pokémen"? — is a game developed by Nintendo about 15 years ago. A Romanized contraction of the Japanese brand Pocket Monsters, according to Wikipedia, it has been commercialized in video games, playing cards, toys, books and movies.
But, really, this isn't some cutesy card game. Don't let their "rules" — "this one has lightning power, but the other one only has a water defense" — disarm you. They know that adults will chalk up Pokémon talk to just another phase when kids learn socialization skills or some other psycho-social babble.
I know the truth: These kids are out to take over the world, one Pokémon card at a time.
They build up huge collections of these cards, with print so fine that it induces migraines in adults that try to decode it. Seemingly innocuous trades are made, back and forth — Kricketot for Geodude, for example — but it's really a trade of information. About what? I don't know yet, but give me time. Deciphering is a slow process.
How else can you explain that Venonat would beat Kingdra? It makes no sense to the undiscerning eye.
Yet these first-grade Saurons make it look so academic, so easy. All the while they make adults untrained in the language of Pokémon believe that it's all so childlike.
"I know about you and your people," I tell Benny.
He glances up at me, his blue eyes twinkling with mock 7-year-old innocence. "What, Daddy?"
I move slowly.
"I know about your 'cards,' your people, your plans for world domination, what it means to have 130 hp" — actually, I don't, but why should he know — "and I can put an end to it."
"Oh, Daddy!" he says. "You're funny."
Yeah, we'll see who has the last laugh, my friend.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Every day …

It's more fun to read blogs than to write them — at least for me it is.
That may seem a betrayal of my profession, but I write all day. Must I really tap out scintillating commentary here?
Not that anything I've written here is groundbreaking, earth-shattering, Lady Gaga-in-an-egg sort of stuff. I just don't have the energy.
I feel like that old cartoon character, groaning over and over again at the slightest hint of promise, "It'll never work."
Besides, all I could ever hope for now is the occasional reader willing enough to let me slip onto the figurative psychiatrist couch. We could talk about how sorely I miss my dad, who died more than three months ago; how, every day, something happens that I say, "I've got to tell Dad about … Oh, yeah, I guess not"; how I wish he could be here to watch Benny's upcoming first baseball practices and games. We could talk about how I have to tell myself not to push Benny too hard into baseball as a way to reconnect with my dad; or how baseball season's started again, and it's the first one where we can't discuss the Tigers' prospects.
Everyone's been through the loss of a parent, but having both gone just bites.
I'm trying to channel my energies into other things: I've joined the handbell choir at church; I'm working out more regularly; I took my first yoga class tonight, and if I can get out of bed tomorrow morning without my muscles contorted into some weird pose, I'll be just dandy; and I've even started working — ploddingly, mind you — on a novel and a kid's book.
Every day, and in every way, I'm getting better and better.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Be it resolved …

What's the start of a new year without some resolutions.

OK -- I'm cheating. Christine gave me Laura Hillenbrand's "Unbroken" for Christmas. I finished it in three days. I'm using that energy to read more. I bought another book, "The Imperfectionists," by Tom Rachman, on Thursday.
I recommend "Unbroken" to anyone. It's not just about an Olympic runner, World War II bomber, survivor of 47 days stranded at sea, and the legacy of Japanese POW camps. His life up to that point is amazing enough -- and accounts for two-thirds of the novel -- but how he conquered his post-war life and helped others even more is incredible on its own.
I'm only 48 pages into "The Imperfectionists," which is a fictional story about people working at an English-language newspaper based in Rome. After my days working for an English-language weekly in Prague, the storyline intrigued me. The structure of the novel put me off at first, but Rachman is a great storyteller, and I'm starting to see the big picture coalesce.

Run and Get more sleep
Here's the plan: Get to bed by 9, rise by 5. That way I can bang out a few pieces for the company website or on Twitter before Christine and Benny wake up.
Rise by 4 on the one day (initially) per week that I go running. I went running with Benny at the Kezar Stadium track last week, and I actually found it relaxing.

Save more money
Not a good start — I just bought this new computer, a Flip camera and a printer. But after seven years of working on the same computer, which technology has passed by — it's time. The goal here: roughly $1,000 a month, not counting restarting the 401(k) contributions. Recommended reading: "Your Money or Your Life." My mother gave it to me and my siblings years ago, but Christine and I finally started living it three years ago.

Stay focused at work
Simple goal here: Continue what I've been doing, but try to turn out at least one enterprise piece every quarter.

Help others/get involved
The church that I joined last June — Seventh Avenue Presbyterian Church — does a monthly gig at a soup kitchen. I've also meant to volunteer at Benny's school's library, and I'll be volunteering with the SF Little League as Benny starts playing baseball this year. I also talked to the choir director at church about playing in the bell choir, something I haven't done for years.
Since I mentioned church, the other thing I want to do is try to figure out this God thing. That isn't too much to do this year, is it?

Eat right/exercise more (consistently)
I've been working out at a club for the past two years, but I need to bring more consistency to that routine. I figure two times working out at the gym and one run per week — so that means eating better.
I cut soda out of my diet in July, and in 2010 I drank a lot more water.
Goal: Lose 5 pounds a month, maintain and finish the year at 170.

Take more trips
In California: Death Valley, Mono Lake.
Midwest: Family in Michigan and Wisconsin.
2012: England, Scotland, France.

Spend more time with family/friends
Whether that means friends from work or friends outside of work, Dad's memorial service reminded me that it's friendships, not achievements that are the longest lasting.
I'm not sure exactly what I think about this little bit from "The Imperfectionists," but it also got me thinking. The character, who is sick, is being interviewed by a reporter for her obit:

"But my point, you see, is that death is misunderstood. The loss of one's life is not the greatest loss. It is no loss at all. To others, perhaps, but not to oneself. From one's own perspective, experience simply halts. From one's own perspective, there is no loss. You see? Yet maybe this is a game of words, too, because it doesn't make it any less frightening, does it." She sips her tea. "What I really fear is time. That's the devil: whipping us on when we'd rather loll, so the present springs by, impossible to grasp, and all is suddenly past, a past that won't hold still, that slides into these inauthentic tales. My past — it doesn't feel real in the slightest. The person who inhabited it is not me. It's as if the present me is constantly dissolving. There's the line of Heraclitus: 'No man steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.' That's quite right. We enjoy this illusion of continuity, and we call it memory. Which explains, perhaps, why our worst fear isn't the end of life but the end of memories." She considers him searchingly. "Do I make sense? Does that seem reasonable? Mad?"