Top of Mind at the tipping point to summer

1) Bike to Work
This week was “Bike to Work Week”. My employer is big into Bike To Work week, and strongly encourages people to participate. It’s also pretty mellow on the “show up exactly at 9 and leave exactly at 5” scale (as long as your work gets done). So with the near-completion of the Stoneham Greenway, all the way through to Winchester Center, I reckoned just maybe it was time to give it a try. I’m pretty scared of biking in traffic. My sister had an extremely serious biking injury when I was in my early teens. Biking in traffic like a grownup seems terrifying. So I posted to an internal group that I was interested in participating (going from my house to Alewife and taking the T in), but asking for good route advice. I got excellent route advice, a t-shirt with a weird Illuminati-biking theme, the loan of front and back headlights, and a colleague who SHOWED UP AT MY HOUSE AT 8:15 to ride in with me and make sure I felt safe. The mind boggles that people could be so awesome, but it turns out that sometimes they are.

Commuting clothes

It took a surprising amount of mental energy. It also took about 2 hours each way, so that’s unlikely to become a regular thing. I thought a lot about what I was going to do, how I was going to do it, and what I’d do if it didn’t work. It was a really novel experience, and I was interested to see how much my mind was engaged and excited by the novelty of it. I was also surprised and pleased that I wasn’t all that physically wiped out by it (except for mebbe that last hill on the way home). I’ve been in better shape lately – we’ve been running a loop with the bikeway as well which is close to 4 miles and I set a personal record best time & personal record longest run last week.

There was this moment, as I spun through brand-new asphalt on the not-quite-yet-finished bikeway where I really really enjoyed the fact that it exists at all. The community came together and made this thing happen, which was not easy. My first post about it was five years ago. Since then there have been Town Hall Meetings, letters to the editor, phone banking, cleanup days and patient and concerted effort to make it happen. It’s astonishing to think that after so long, the efforts of the good-hearted people of Stoneham are bearing fruit, but here they are!

2) Plums
Speaking of bearing fruit, I’ve been more than a little obsessed with my plums this year. The point at which you’re putting a space heater out for a fruit tree, you have crossed some important line. However, I’m happy to say that they’ve made it the furthest this year in the history of this benighted plum. There are hundreds of tiny little fruits. Most are the size of a lentil, but there are one or two that are the size of really small olives.

I’m excited to learn what disaster can kill fruit at this stage! I’ll let you know.

There are a couple hundred plums, but these are the biggest

3) Attic Renovation
I’ve been getting strong pressure from maternal sources to post an update in the attic situation. Here’s the album where you can watch the whole thing progress. We have the electric & plumbing in, as well as a lot of the framing. Almost all the demo is completed (or was, until we increased scope like the home owners we are). The inspection has been done. There’s a bit of waiting for the next step – we need to put in the new windows, but they’re on order and won’t be ready until early June. We also need to get the HVAC in and all hooked up. We opted to go for a bigger unit so we can drop some cool air in summer down to the 2nd floor and actually get it to be a comfortable temperature – sandwiched between two zones. We also had to put in new hard-wired smoke detectors for the whole house to bring it up to code, and bring in a new electric bank. Once we have HVAC & windows in, we’ll do closed cell insulation from the bottom of the walls to the tip top of the roof. We’ll need to vacate the house then for a day. But that’ll be the biggest tipping point – then we can start doing finish type work like, you know, walls & stuff.

I reckon the project will be done by early August, if I’m lucky.

4)Time with my boys
I got to go to Fenway on Thursday night for the makeup game from Patriot’s day. It was so perfect. The weather was ideal. The game was excellent (and we won). It’s an interesting moment when you learn that your child is really good company. We had good conversations, we were game-watching-compatible. On the walk back to where we parked, he didn’t like how someone had bumped up against me, and then protectively took the spot between me and other people. How quickly we go from protecting them to them feeling protective of us. He’s still not bigger than me, but that will not last long.

Just as I took this picture, the Sox hit a home run

In the same vein, every year for Mother’s Day we go to the Arnold Arboretum for the Lilac Festival. And every year for many the boys have climbed these ponderous birch trees with tempting limbs and I’ve taken their pictures there. This year, we arrived to find a denuded slope. I never thought that the grand trees my boys climbed on would not outlast our Mother’s Day tradition. I will admit tears welled in my eyes. I’m grieved for the magnificent trees that were lost (although I’m sure the arborists did everything in their power to save them). But it was this shocking moment to discover that we are all now old enough for things that were traditions to come to final endings. It’s astonishing enough to have sufficient tenure to parenthood to have traditions in the first place. I feel very unready to have traditions end.

Not quite the same thing

5) Finding my feet again
Every year for Mothers Day I write my mother a letter about how things have been in the past year. Last year I wrote a letter that talked about how overwhelmed I was, especially with huge projects like the pastor search and kicking off the attic project. I added a few things to my tally during the course of the year, the largest of which was probably getting a new job. But slowly slowly slowly, since about January, I’ve been unburying myself from the accumulation of things that needed to be done, and shortening that infinite to do list. Clearing out the attic in preparation for our project was a huge one that I suspect added a lot to my anxiety. Things have been getting crossed off. I’m starting to arrive at a point where I almost feel like I can actually rest without guilt, sometimes. Of course, there’s always more to-do list to go, and I haven’t fulfilled every promise I made for “after we hired a pastor”. But I’m closer, and that’s really reassuring.

So that’s what’s up with me. What’s up with you?

6 reasons I like Sportsball

Among the people I spend time with, referring to a game is as likely to be about 7 Wonders or Fate as it is to be about baseball, or basketball. In fact, depending on the precise people, it’s considerably more likely. During March Madness, all my office could talk about was Google’s AI going 4 of 5 against a Go champion. Sometimes, friends or acquaintances of mine disparagingly (or bemusedly) refer to whatever big sporting event that’s going on as sportsball, they seem so indistinguishable.

I’m not an obvious target for breaking from this culture, and liking sports. My favorite kinds of music are mid-century American folk, pre-baroque early music, and opera. I read science fiction and fantasy primarily. I have a 15 year career in software. I got my degree in medieval studies. This is not a profile that screams “I can correctly identify offsides before I see the flag go up”.*

But here it is, Sunday night. Game of Thrones is on, but I’m 100% tuned in to the Copa America finals, really hoping to see Lionel Messi do to Chile what he did to the US in the semis. I’ve loved the summer of soccer, although I admittedly only really watch the international tournaments. I listen to or watch at least parts of probably 80 baseball games a year. For the last several years, I’ve watched almost every Pats** game, and as many Seahawks games as I could catch. And it’s not because I love my husband who loves sports. In fact, he doesn’t like anything but soccer. He calls the baseball broadcasts “the voices in my head” and only goes to a game in person because he likes the hot dogs.

So why do I like sports? What makes it worth spending two or three hours on the couch?

1) You can connect with so many people
I started my sports interest in 1995, with the amazing Seattle Mariners team. Everyone around me was talking about the Mariners. Very few people were interested in talking about Seattle Opera’s superb staging of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, which is what I was excited about that summer. As a supercilious 16 year old, I did of course feel superiorly artistic. But also a bit lonely. At some point, I decided I would open-mindedly investigate this whole “baseball” thing to see what it was all about. And it was amazing! Suddenly, these people with whom I felt like I had nothing in common became friends. I could say, “Did you catch the game last night?” and then we could talk about the game last night. It opened up this huge point of connection, which was my primary goal. It was almost heady, how being interested in what other people were interested in made them more likely to talk to me… or even to like me.

2) It turns out sports are interesting
Chances are good you have one of two reactions to that statement.

    a) Well duh
    b) I doubt it

But the reason that millions of people spend time, money, energy, passion and attention on sports is because they’re fascinating. I think of them like the best poetry. The form is known – like a sonnet. You know that a sonnet will be ABABCDCDEFEFGG. You know the form so well you don’t even have to think about it. But like poetry, each expression of that form is profoundly unique. All the best sports have uncertain outcomes. The only way to know what will happen is to watch the game, even if probabilities and prognostication seem to point to certainty. It’s like poetry of human accomplishment, in opposition to other striving humans, written out for you in real time.

3) You get to feel strong, conclusive feelings
You can be dumped in the pit of despair, but no one actually died. You can exult in the height of exultation. (But you did not actually win the lottery.) You can have aching, edge-of-seat uncertainty for an hour or two, when you wonder if you have any underlying heart conditions. That uncertainty is always resolved at the end. Most entertainment is designed to help us feel things we don’t usually get to feel (and often don’t want to feel) in the day to day course of our lives. Movies make us feel, love, admiration, fear, joy, terror and disgust. Sports can do the same, but in a way that seems less scripted or constructed. We do not feel those emotions on behalf of others, but rather for our own selves, and in community with those around us. No one knows ahead of time which feelings they’ll feel. That’s a powerful catharsis, with a firm and absolute ending point.

4) You join the shared memory
We’ve had to redefine communal memory several times in the last few generations. For the generation prior, it was the shared tv shows on the few networks. Before that, the radio shows. Before that, it was likely more fragmented with stories being told in communities about those communities, that people would share and retell across time with other people who remembered them as well. In an increasingly fragmented world, where we have neither shared history nor shared media, the biggest sporting events are something of a touchpoint. In Boston, “Where were you when the Sox won the World Series?” is likely to get as many stories (well rehearsed, usually) as the still-annual “Where were you when the towers fell?” They make you feel like you belong.

5) It provides a brief break from reality
Do you know what word WASN’T spoken during the broadcast tonight? Brexit. I work hard to stay well informed. I read and listen to a reasonable amount of news. But sometimes I like to have media that allows me to dip in and out (so not a gripping novel), that involves people talking, and that isn’t as depressing as the Dead Sea.

6) Legitimate excuse to sit on the couch
Maybe this is just me, but if I can do something “later” I often don’t do it “at all”. But with sporting events, it’s really really best if you watch it when it’s live. And that means I get to sit still and relax. I don’t live a life conducive to relaxing. If I wasn’t watching the Copa America*** tonight I probably would’ve done the dishes, worked on the attic project, cleaned the living room and then fallen into bed exhausted. Instead, I got to sit with a friend on the couch with no demands. It was brilliant.


What about you? Do you love some sports? All sports? No sports? Do you think sports are silly? Do you follow them passionately? Have you learned over time to see the point in them?

*New skill. Won’t lie. I just figured that one out this summer.
**Having acquired the skills and background in just the last few years to find American Football really interesting, I have decided it’s not a sport I can feel really good about watching. The recent findings about the way football destroys both mind and body of so many of the players makes it feel too much like a blood sport – like I’m a Roman in the coliseum. I’ll still come watch with you if you invite me (and I’ll probably enjoy it), but I decided to take it off my calendar as an event I’ll pursue of my own interests.
***I still can’t BELIEVE that ending!

Haikus and apple butter

I don’t have much time for contemplation in my life. I’m a knowledge worker, so most of my tasks require the better parts of my brain, leaving little time when my hands are busy and my mind is free. But this last weekend we obtained a bushel of apples. A bushel of apples means apple butter time, which means peeling, coring and cutting 20 apples, followed by much stirring. One finds oneself thinking of the infinite variety of apple seeds (apple trees don’t grow true from seeds – varietals are made by grafting), or how rarely I’ve made apple butter with Joe and Don keeping me company during playoff season.

My mind wandered. The result was two appallingly bad haikus, which I of course share with you:

Peels and cores piled high
Throwing away apple seeds
Russets never known.

Playoff baseball sounds
Peeling six pounds of apples
My team sits at home.

The tools of the meditation

Baseball and the mysteries of children

Backyard baseball
Backyard baseball

I’m still at the “introduce your children to every possible hobby” phase of parenting – at least with my firstborn. There are so many wonderful and rewarding hobbies to be had, and so many of them are picked up as young children. Thane, my sweet little four year old, is already getting a little long in the tooth to ever be an ice skater or Olympic gymnast.

Anyway, you all remember me talking about sending Grey to basketball during the winter. Both boys have been doing aikido since their fourth birthday – sadly not past this summer. But I’ve also signed Grey up for: dance classes (the recital led the the worst picture ever and an intense desire never to go to a dance recital again, on my part), cooking classes, science classes, swim classes, basketball, soccer, guitar lessons and one single piano lesson.

Quite possibly the worst picture ever
Quite possibly the worst picture ever

No way no how is he doing anything that involves rink times on MY watch. So in an attempt to try yet one more sporty thingy, I signed him up this spring for a three day baseball skills camp. His teacher at school said that team sports might help him feel more like a participant instead of an onlooker at recess (I hated to let her know that reading at recess is a dominant trait and one that was passed down to Grey on both genetic lines – but I took her point). So in a fit of ambition, when a thick packet of summer camp sporty type things came home sometime mid spring I found one that was happening while my mother-in-law was here and blithely signed him up.

And forgot about it for a few months.

Now, for those of you who have not met him, Grey is a pretty sensitive guy. He dislikes physical pain and discomfort (as opposed to my youngest child who would probably keep on playing through broken bones if he was having fun). He really hates having people make fun of him. And periodically he has been known to display a bit of a persecution complex. These traits were particularly pronounced towards the end of school, so I was feeling particularly uneasy about this “Baseball skills camp” I had signed him up for.

I pulled back out the Xeroxed form, so terse. Here I was, handing my was-a-first-grader-yesterday over to this camp, and for requirements it said: “Bring a baseball glove, shoes or cleats and a refillable water bottle.” That’s it. What about lunch? I read the text at top “Blah blah blah Varsity baseball coach blah blah learn skills in small group settings with focused coaching blah blah six to twelve years old”.

Holy valhalla. What had I signed my kid up for? I imaged his last few complaints in the ears of the High School Varsity Baseball coach. And he’d be about the littlest kid there! He wouldn’t even get a day to chillax between school and baseball! And he’d never played baseball before! I took him to Target to pick out his glove.

“Mom, this glove is too tight! Mom, this one pinches! None of these (23 options of) gloves is going to fit my hands. My hands are a size 3.* These are all the wrong size! Mom, I don’t think I should do baseball tomorrow.”

Ah. Hm. There we had it. I almost agreed with him. Instead, I rang the help button and got the much-aggrieved-Target-guy (who had already not-sold me a stool that was displayed but not for sale) to size Grey up for a baseball glove. But I wondered… was it the stupidest idea ever to send my kid to a three day, five hour, all guy, all skills baseball camp in the sweltering heat when most of the kids there would truly be working on their swing or their fastball? Oh, did I mention not a single one of his friends was going?

I sent him anyway, counting on having my mother-in-law a mile away. I can’t say I didn’t spend the entire day waiting for the “Come pick your son up” call. But soon it was a quarter to two. It so happened I could pick him up that day, so not able to wait any longer I drove to the high school and after some mystery managed to locate my son. There he was, playing catch with one of the “assistant coaches” (read: members of the varsity baseball team).

“How did it go?”

“Great! I had a great time. I want to do this again next year! Hey, mom, I promised coach I’d clean up. Let me finish getting the gear.”

And that’s how it went, for three days. The second day, he was just coming in from the field as I drove up. One of the other kids sort of pushed him as he was going into the dugout, in that ambiguous way that boys have. Oh no, I thought. Is Grey stomping off the field? No, his team was just batting. He sat on the bench next to the other kids, easy in their company, until it was his turn. He was the last batter. He stepped up to the plate. Swing and miss. Swing and miss. Foul ball. (And this is the kind of baseball where three strikes actually means you’re out and you better go sit down.) Then he hit a grounder to first base and ran it out hard. He grabbed his gear and came out grinning.

The moment of the ground out
The moment of the ground out

“I hit a single and a triple, mom!”

Well, I’ll be. He loved it. He wants to go back next year. He did three days of hard work, hard listening, hard skills. Things he didn’t know with people he doesn’t know. And there was ZERO whining. (This from a kid who will say he’s too tiiiiiiired to go alllll the way to the bathroom to brush his teeth and can’t he skip it for juuuust one night?)

I will say that this taught me a lot. Obviously, I had underestimated Grey badly when I stood in Target and wondered if I should even attempt this. It makes me wonder if his sensitivity might be because things are not challenging enough for him – if when presented with something that’s truly hard he revels and steps up. Maybe it’s the things that are repetitive and predictable that he finds difficult. Or maybe I should just stop stereotyping bald, muscular varsity baseball coaches as not in tune with the emotional needs of their pint-sized charges.

Whatever it was, I am so very glad that we tried this experiment. I don’t know if baseball will be Grey’s “thing” (I wouldn’t mind!). T-ball is unfortunately a really awful scheduling match for working parents, but if that is what he comes to love, I’ll make it happen. But I’m so grateful for three days that helped me see how strong and capable my rising-second-grader really is.

Red Sox: In good times and in bad

Red Sox fan - Fenway 2009
Red Sox fan – Fenway 2009

I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a baseball season that made me so passionately excited about football as this 2012 Red Sox season. I’ve been a baseball fan since 1995 – a respectable time now. I started as a Mariners fan and – without dropping my hope for the Ms to do well while bowing to the realities of being 3 time zones away – I’ve become an ardent Red Sox fan.

I’m definitely not alone in having come to Red Sox fandom in the last decade. I attended my first game at Fenway in 2000. 2001, for reasons that will be instantly understandable to those of you who live in the Northwest of follow baseball closely, I lived tied to the MLB broadcasts on my computer – up until late at night. After that, though, I started following the Sox. I lived through the devastating heartache of 2003 (there is a great group of guys with whom I can never watch another game after Pedro got lifted…). I actually missed the first three games of the ALCS in 2004 (I was in Vienna and thinking, as I caught the box scores, “Well, at least I’m not missing a *good* post-season.”), but lived through the incredibly late nights and unbelievable comebacks of Game 4 and beyond. I rode the wave of seeming-inevitable excellence through 2007. And like so much of Red Sox nation, I find myself facing down a September where we are – to put it plainly – totally out of it.

Dire days like these, my friends, are when I need to draw on my Mariners roots. There are 29 teams in baseball. This year roughly a third of them will make it to post-season play. Only two of them will stand on the frost-hard field in the chilly air of late October. But all of these teams have fans – not just that ultimate pair or penultimate quad.

Your team does not have to be winning – or even good – to have fun being a fan.

As the 2012 season turned from bad to worse, I opined to a friend that it was years like this that allowed purer motivations to shine. Everyone wants to be part of a winning effort, but disdain and disinterest have followed the Red Sox this year as they have struggled to win as many games as they’ve lost. As fast as people jumped on that bandwagon, so fast are they saying that the Red Sox do not deserve their fandom. Well, I’m not jumping.

There are great compensations in losing, my friends. For example, the next time the Red Sox are great (which with Cherington’s moves may be as early as 2014), we will get to be the “We were there when” folks with the 13 year old lucky shirt. Sox fans can actually see the games now. This isn’t a problem in most towns, but there have been years where it was impossible to procure even bad tickets to exciting games in Boston. They still cost an arm and a leg, but at least now if you WANT to get to Fenway, you can go. We are getting to watch some young players come up who will be next year’s super-stars. I remember listening to Kevin Youklis’ very first major league at bat. Some of the kids we’ll see next year will be the next Youklis… and some will be the next Jose Cruz Jr. (My Mariners peeps remember how big he was billed!). We may have the chance to watch a team win against the odds, instead of having the “Best Team Ever” collapse into ignominy. In small market towns, some of the compensation is watching your gifted young players “Make it big” in the big towns. In a town like Boston, it’s getting to poach those self-same players. Regardless, the Red Sox are almost guaranteed to have a shot at the playoffs within a decade.

That isn’t true everywhere. Take, oh, Seattle for instance. There was much ado about the 84 years since the last time the Sox brought home the championship. But Seattle’s team, founded in the 1977 expansion has not only NEVER won a World Series… it’s never BEEN to a World Series. The furthest we’ve ever gotten is the ALCS in 1995. That record-breaking 2001 season ended up flaring out in October. And although the Mariners keep valiantly trying, there is no sense of entitlement in the Emerald City that we’ll ever win it. But still, the fans flock to Safeco and turn on KOMO.

Why?

Because it’s fun to watch and listen to baseball. That’s the point. Your team may lose four games out of five, but man that fifth game King Felix is pitching. Or you have an outfielder like Jay Buhner who just loves to play, and it shows. Or you have an Edgar Martinez, who would still be DH-ing if they’d let him run the bases for his doubles using a wheelchair. Or, in a particular appalling year, you still cheer for your team to win (against all odds), but the fun of watching is seeing all the stars of the game come to your home town to trounce your teams… a little like having the Harlem Globetrotters come. Just because your team is under .500 doesn’t mean it isn’t fun.

So, bring on September. Would I rather we were in the thick of the chase? Of course. Am I looking very much forward to the Pats kickoff in just over a week? HECK YES. But until then, I’ll listen to Joe and Dave, follow the kids called up in September, hear the amazing feats of the opposition and hope that we at least play well in tonight’s loss.

Late September baseball

After a year where no one followed the Red Sox because there was no way we were going anywhere after our start, and then after no one paid much attention because we were locked into the playoffs, we finally have some interesting baseball to watch. Tonight’s game determines how much more. It could be the last if the Red Sox lose and the Rays win, we could have one more guaranteed game if the Rays and Red Sox both win (making gaming night a challenge – one of my fellow gamers is also a Sox fan so we might compromise with like a tv on sound off or something), or we might have at least 3 more games in Round 1 of the playoffs. As I sit here, all of these possibilities unfold across baseball diamonds up and down the East Coast with home runs, errors, fantastic double plays, rain delays and all the things that make baseball a sport to love.

About this time every year I feel the impulse to write a thank you note, a love note, to baseball. For a little over half the year, baseball gives me something to look forward to, something to talk about. I listen at 9 pm on my way to go grocery shopping, and catch up on the score at the deli counter where the radio is always on. Joe and Dave keep me company while I pay bills in the attic, and Don and Jerry crack jokes during blowouts. I snuggle my son and explain all the mysterious numbers on the screen, pretending not to notice it’s after his bedtime. Baseball and coffee are two of the small, durable pleasures that weave a colorful thread into the utilitarian cloth of my life.

And yes, I love baseball enough to compare it to coffee. That’s how serious our romance is.

Tonight it will be all over. Or there will be one more do or die game. Or we will advance. This season we will end with a whimper, or a bang, or triumphal victory. Exhausted men will grind through with passion, obligation, ambition and long practice to ignominy or ecstasy.

No one alive knows which. And that, my friends, is why I love this game.

Procrastination vs. Planning

So this year, the result of doing taxes is likely to be me sitting down and writing a very large check to the US government. If I’m lucky, it won’t involve a penalty for having to write TOO large a check. Back in the old days when I used to get refunds, I’d be waiting at the mail for my last W2 so I could get my taxes done by February 4th. Now, though, well….. let’s just say that several weekends have come and gone where I probably should’ve done the taxes and didn’t. Finally, though, we’re in April. (For all the weather doesn’t indicate that.) Time to be done and get it off my list and my conscience. So I sat down at my official tax and bill doing computer, read several websites, IM’d with my mom, found some baseball on MLB.com (Orioles vs. Rays – not sure who I’m cheering for), fixed my MLB.com account and then finally meandered over to log in to the tax web site.

Hmmmm… what’s my password? Maybe this one? Or that one? Or possibly the other one? And then I got a nasty note, “You’ve made 3 unsuccessful attempts to sign in. Your account has been locked for security reasons. Please try again in 20 minutes.”

Greeeeeaaaaaat.

So that’s what I’m doing right now. Burning 20 minutes (since I’ve already read all my websites) until I can try and log in again in order to have the fun! and excitement! of doing my taxes. You see where you rate.

Lessee… what’s up.

Well, today was the opening day for the Red Sox. I would probably be more ebullient about this, except they got creamed by the Rangers, which was not in our opening day plan. One game in, and Red Sox nation is already panicking because two of our best pitchers had bad outings. It’s great to be a Red Sox fan, when you can start whining while the winter snow is still on the ground!

Speaking of, we got real actual snow last night. I walked out and immediately experienced some nasty PTSD – Post-traumatic Snow Disorder. It’s widespread in New England this “spring”. I’m so ready for summer!

Still, it was beautiful coming home tonight. The snow reduces the visual noise, making heterogeneous locations momentarily homogeneous. The snow had melted on the branches of the trees, turning the trunks of winter-worn maples bright black against the white snow and steel sky. The tone of the light has changed from wan to bright, bringing a strange dissonance to the scene. And the trees are this wonderful pregnant grey, with a faint shimmer of red like a blush on a maiden’s cheek.

OK! Long enough! They let me log in! Now to really go do the taxes. Right after I check to see if any of my favorite blogs have updated in the last 10 minutes….