Am I Out of My Mind?
The call came on a cold, snowy night in January.
"This is the commissioner of the West Side Little League."
"Yes . . . ?"
"I've got you down to coach a team in the seven-year-old division?"
"That's right . . ."
"Well, I just thought we ought to talk a bit. Walk you through a few things, let you know what's involved, find out if you're really fully committed . . ."
An hour or so later, I'd gotten an earful of exactly what was involved and what full commitment was going to mean. Midweek practices, lugging equipment bags, field maintenance, overinvolved parents and underinvolved parents, needy kids, scraped knees and broken bones, meltdowns and crying fits (among the kids), meltdowns and crying fits (among the adults), seven-year-olds who wouldn't know their way to first base and seven-year-olds who would be smacking line drives into the outfield like Ken Griffey, Jr. Keeping everybody happy was a Big Job. The commissioner wanted me to know exactly what I was getting myself into. Was I up for it?
That night I have a terrible anxiety dream. I'm on a ball field without any grass and littered with debris, surrounded by a bunch of seven-year-old boys, including my own son, Max. Except these boys are all big for their age--tall and beefy! Some of them are bigger than I am. Only Max is his real size, and he's a peanut next to these behemoths. "Okay, guys, gather round," I say. "My name is Henry and I'm going to be your coach this season. We're going to have a lot of fun!" The boys look at me dubiously, with a kind of sneering disdain, restlessly kicking at the ground. Even Max looks a little unsure. Then the biggest one, who's suddenly towering over me, says, "You're the coach? You don't look like my dad! You're old!" The other boys mumble suspiciously among themselves. Then the dream shifts and I'm in the field, a ball coming at me. A grounder. It's that same grounder that was always coming at me when I played ball as a kid, the one that always got between my legs or bounced up and hit me in the chin, letting the runners score. It's the grounder. An eternity passes as the ball gets closer, moving toward me like a guided missile. Finally, it's right in front of me. It rolls between my legs. The oversized monster children jeer and mutter to themselves. I look for Max to see how he's taking it. But I can't find him. He was here a minute ago. Have the oversized children done something to him? Those thugs. Where is he? I cry out for him, terrified.
Whoa! I woke up completely drained and slightly depressed. Was I up for it? I was practically having a panic attack. And what about Max? He's a gentle boy, about to turn seven, small for his age. He's just beginning to get his toes wet as an athlete. I'd heard all the stories about cutthroat competition, Little League rage, obsessive parents, psychopath coaches. I knew little kids could be cruel bullies. Was this too soon to be exposing his tender psyche and limbs to Little League?
Bottom line? This was the last thing I needed. I lead the classic overextended New Yorker's life. A demanding job as a literary agent with long hours at the office and mountains of manuscripts at home. Two kids--seven-year-old boy and girl twins, Max and Maddy. After the hellish madhouse that begins with getting them off to school every day (I swear there are fifty-six sets of mittens, scarves, and hats in our apartment, but try finding a matched pair at 8:32 on a weekday), cranking through a workday at the beck and call of my clients ("pecked alive by little birds" could be my epitaph), then back to the trenches to do my part with homework, piano practice, dinner, baths, pick up the room, pj's and good-night books, and a getting-into-bed routine so elaborate and ritualized it makes the High Church look casual by comparison. Even after my wife, Wendy, and I have picked up the wreckage left behind by a day of family life, there's still more. Phone calls and e-mails to return, schedules to coordinate, bills to pay, it never ends. Finally we'll collapse into bed, I'll make a halfhearted attempt to get some reading done for work, and then--boom!--down for the count. Did I really want to say yes to another claim on my time, let alone feel responsible for a fresh horde of little boys not even related to me?
And since when was I such a big jock? I'm a card-carrying, big-city intellectual type--the last getup I picture myself in is a sweatshirt, clipboard, and silver whistle. If I'd wanted that kind of scene, I'd have packed up the family and moved to the burbs long ago--where little boys are named Andy, Chuck, and Bill, not Max, Lucas, Cormac, and Marley. I'm a balding, forty-eight-year-old, hypochondriac short guy--and though I like to think I exude a certain Left Bank panache, I'm probably more Woody Allen than Belmondo, and no one would ever mistake me for the Volvo-driving Dad Next Door. I'm streets of New York, you dig? Little League coach? Moi? Fuhgeddaboutit!
Sure, I play some sports. I'm pretty good at tennis and I don't embarrass myself on the ski slopes. Of course these are civilized grown-up sports, both of which I pretty much discovered and began playing as an adult. I'm certainly no gym rat: my idea of a good workout is walking to work. I am a pretty serious baseball fan--Yankee devotee since a New York childhood in the 1950s worshipping at the altar of Mantle, Ford, Berra and the rest of that immortal crew. I admit it--I could tell you what the Mick batted in his Triple Crown year, the starting lineup of the '78 team that took the Dodgers out of the Series in six, or what Derek Jeter's batting average was the day before yesterday. Fine, I'm a baseball nut. But Little League Coach?
What's more, this is New York City, not Toms River, New Jersey--what's a Little League doing in the mean streets of Gotham anyway? Stickball I could understand, but well-scrubbed kids in uniforms?
So where was this crazy impulse coming from?
Well, you don't have to search too far to find the answer. Meet my son, Max.
A year ago he wouldn't have known Derek Jeter if he bumped into him in the elevator. But now? Let's put it this way: every morning, the first sounds we wake up to are (1) Max padding off to the bathroom, followed by (2) Max unlatching the front door to get the sports page. By the time I get out to the living room, he's read every word of it start to finish, including box scores. My-son-the-sports-encyclopedia can tell you what the Yankees and Mets did last night, why Van Gundy played Ewing for only 20 minutes, what chance the Rangers have of making the playoffs, why Agassi finally has a shot against Sampras, who the football Giants' top draft pick is likely to be (and why); hell, he can tell you what the MetroStars (soccer anyone?) are up to. If he starts following Nascar, I'm going to begin to worry about him.
And that's just the news from yesterday. He can also tell you which six Yankees on the 1961 team had twenty or more home runs, or that when Reggie Jackson came to the plate in a 1973 game with a mustache on his lip, it was the first time facial hair had been seen on a ballplayer since the 1920s. A true sports nut knows his history.
It's a little scary. He's a walking 24-hour all-talk sports radio station, an IBM mainframe saturated with sports statistics and trivia, stores of arcane knowledge growing like some diabolical virus in a cheesy sci-fi movie. Wendy worries that there will be no room in that little brain for anything else, and I try to assure her that sports knowledge is like a useless vestigial organ--it can expand endlessly and accommodate vast stores of data without cramping the rest of the brain. There's no real damage.
I'm proud, I admit it. I'm not saying the kid's a genius or anything, but how many first graders can calculate an earned run average, or tell you what Mariano Rivera's fastball gets clocked at, or present a reasoned argument as to why Derek Jeter's got it all over Nomar Garciaparra and Alex Rodriguez?
God, listen to me. I'm sounding exactly like the kind of overbearing alpha dad I swore I'd never be. I'm sounding like a gung-ho Little League coach. Where is this coming from?
A couple of years ago--Max must have been around four and a half or five--I began to sense that there was something lacking in the way my son and I were relating. I don't see myself as a distant father, but something was buffering the connection between me and Max and making me feel, well, distant. Why? I wondered. I wasn't one of these dads who held back love or approval--was I? I wasn't working insanely long hours at the office, spending too little time at home--was I? I'd changed thousands of diapers, for God's sake! I was totally hands-on with my kids--slobberingly, unreservedly affectionate with them. I had a thousand sweet little nicknames for each of them, I'd throw them up in the air and twirl them around until my back ached, and each night we had a set ritual of reading books, singing songs as they lay in bed--and then, much like my own father had done with me, I would tell them a story as they drifted off. I'd lie with each of them, waiting for their breathing to deepen. I felt there was trust here, that my children understood the depth of my love in an intuitive way, that they felt comfortable and safe within it.
But whereas with Maddy I enjoyed a kind of unspoken and deep bond of comfort and ease, Max was often fidgety and hyperfrisky with me. I observed the warm yearning he directed toward his mom, and was aware that not much of that was coming at me. Often he seemed angry at me, pushing me away. And as much as I'd kiss and snuggle him, my little boy wasn't kissing me back.
Oedipal phase? Smooching with Mommy, giving Daddy the "who the hell are you?" treatment? For a while I thought so. This would surely change in its own time--Max was just going through a "Mommy thing."
But it bothered me. I began to notice that Max and I didn't seem completely comfortable around each other. With twins it's hard to carve out time alone with one child or the other, but even when I'd make the conscious effort to get some time with Max, we didn't seem to have much to talk about. I'd become uncomfortable when periods of silence set in and at those moments I'd try to find some razzle-dazzle way of reaching him--a special outing to the zoo, a marathon tickling session, maybe a new video--but somehow we just weren't connecting. This was awful. Nothing in life was more important to me than being a good father, and suddenly this relationship felt stale and hollow.
Meanwhile, I was getting feedback from Wendy. Well, I'll call it "feedback" now; at the time it just felt like constant nagging. I was distracted, she said, always distracted. What was I thinking about? Work, bills, projects--whatever. It was my style to be obsessively thinking about something else always, and especially when I was with the kids. Like a worker on an assembly line, I was getting the job done, but my mind was always elsewhere, racing. My inner preoccupations were pulling me away from the truly intimate moments. Particularly with Max. I wasn't hearing him. "Listen to him," Wendy would say. "Did you hear what he just asked you?" She'd catch me a dozen times a day, not really listening. There but not really there, the classic male deception. I'd pretend I'd heard what he'd just said--that old guy trick of repeating the words still somehow lingering in your ears though you didn't actually take them in, did you? God, it was annoying to be caught.
"He wants your attention so badly. I see the look on his face when he asks you something and you haven't heard. Take him in," she said. "Don't entertain him, just have a conversation with him. I know how much you love him, but he needs you just to listen to him, hear him."
"Take him in," my wife beseeched me.
One afternoon, I arrived at a kindergarten friend's house to pick Max up at the end of a play date. The boys weren't ready to be done playing, so they went wild when I came in the room and asked Max to get his shoes on. Then when I picked him up and put him on the bed to help with the shoes, Max suddenly exploded with rage and began pummeling me with his fists and screaming, "Go away!" This was not a kind of tantrum I'd ever seen from him before. This expressed deeper layers of feelings than not wanting his play date to end. I hugged him to me to try to calm him, and as he continued to fight me, I began (to my horror) to feel my own tears building. Something was wrong between me and Max.
That night, I poured myself a drink and tried to sort this thing out. I tried to absorb what Wendy had been telling me without being defensive. I began to think about my own father and how he related to me. Much like me, he was a man often lost in preoccupation. Though very loving, he often seemed to be in his own world. Fact is, my father rarely actually played with me. Got down on the floor to shoot marbles. Dealt the cards for a game of Go Fish. Or set aside a day for a special outing with me. Did my father emerge from the busy factory of his own obsessions to "take me in" or did he more or less get the job done with one hand while the rest of him was busy with his own battles? Was that what I was doing with Max?
Excerpted from The Way Home by Henry Dunow. Copyright © 2002 by Henry Dunow. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.