How we’re spending our early, and extended, summer vacation

Hello, Blogosphere. It’s been a while. The last time we talked, the world was kind of almost normal. That seems like years ago.

I’ve been keeping busy over the past four months, or ten years, or however long it’s been since the good ol’ days. I am fortunate to have been fully employed. Keeping three boys academically engaged has been a challenge, one upon which my wife and I hope never to be judged.

Fortunately, our 7th grader has been more than willing to coach our 3rd grader and our 1st grader. Consequently, they are now all playing Fortnite at grade level.

Big Brother has been honing his basketball skills in the driveway. He can almost dunk on an 8.5-foot rim. The standard basketball rim is 10 feet high, so once he gains a foot and half of lift, he’ll be able to show the world how he can almost dunk.

I don’t know if the boy will ever get beyond almost dunking. I’m afraid he inherited my farmer’s legs. If you don’t know about farmer’s legs, try to imagine the last time you heard a sportscaster mention Old McDonald’s amazing elevation on his vertical leap. That’s all you need to know.

Buster and Big Man have been reading with me every day. Never have pride and pain worked hand in hand as they do on me when I listen to the boys read. Did you know a kid can read a word perfectly four times in a row and then be completely baffled by it the fifth time his eyes meet it? Did you know his slightly old brother can tackle a serious of four-syllable words with aplomb before being defeated by a single-syllable word with no phonic irregularities?

The reading is easy compared to the paperwork the school sent. It’s not particularly difficult work; it’s just hard to find motivation to do schoolwork when the TV is so close, especially when you’re sure there is at least one channel showing Sponge Bob, regardless of the time of day.

When you are distracted by the thought of missed cartoons, you make mistakes. When my children make mistakes on their papers, it is sorely aggravating to me. It’s not that they made a mistake, or even that they made it from carelessness; what drives me up the wall is the way in which little boys erase their pencil marks.

erasing

What number is this? Whatever number answers the problem.

I have three boys, and not one of them can erase a pencil mark worth a damn. They take two half-hearted swipes at the paper with the eraser and then write the new answer overtop the mangled result.  After the first attempt, I must assume they found the correct answer, because something in the tangled carnage of pencil scratches is bound to be right, at least approximately.

The big takeaway from the current situation is I should not be the one charged with educating my children. They don’t respect my credentials, and I’m not as engaging as Sponge Bob. That last part stings.

The best disappointing loss we ever had

In the small frame, this post is about basketball. In the bigger picture, it’s about learning life. I’ll try not to go into the weeds of basketball getting to the larger point.

Our university’s basketball team advanced to the NCAA Final Four this year. We’ve been spoiled by going to the Final Four eight times in the past 20 years. However, our team has brought home the National Championship only once in those eight trips. This means we’ve had seven instances of build-up and high hopes, followed by bitter disappointment.

Our last Final Four was four years ago, when Big Brother was six years old. He was just becoming conscious of the game called basketball, and wasn’t interested in it as television viewing. The words “Final Four” meant nothing to him.

Since then, he began playing organized basketball. This past winter, his 5th grade team had a challenging season, but turned their fortunes around at the end by winning their league tournament. Not only did Big Brother learn how much effort and determination it took to win such a tournament, it stirred his interest in our university’s team.

He began watching the NCAA tournament games with increased interest. For me, this was a long-awaited perk of fatherhood: watching sports with a child who cared about the game.

It’s a double-edged perk.

Even in 5th grade, it takes long hours of practice.

On Saturday, we watched the National Semi-final together. The game went back and forth, until the opposing team pulled ahead. Then our team came back and got within one point, but the momentum switched again and the other team held on to win.

It was another case of high hopes leading to disappointment. I’d been there before, but it was a new experience for Big Brother. The final buzzer left him lying face down on the couch. I rolled him over to find tears in his eyes.

At that moment I felt proud, which seems a little odd, but I was glad he could develop a passion for something beyond his own person. I also felt a tinge of guilt at my role in turning him into a sports fan. Sports leads to disappointment more often than not. Even the good seasons mostly end with a loss. Nobody likes to see their children disappointed.

But we have to see them disappointed. The character moments are born of disappointment. I talked to Big Brother about keeping perspective. There are so many things in his life, more important than basketball, to be happy about. We talked about disappointment, and how you have to move past it, get on with life, and be ready for what comes your way next.

I didn’t cheer him up much that night. He’ll have to see it for himself. Life is back to normal, with more pressing things that need attention (e.g. school assignments). If my words can just hang out in the background until the next disappointment life hands him, perhaps they can help him see it’s probably not the end of the world.

I would have preferred a victory, but as far as disappointing losses go, this one may have been the most useful.

What lies beneath

In matters of the heart, our boys are all boy. When it comes to demonstrating emotions toward each other, that demonstration usually takes the form of a punch or a blind-side tackle. Sure, they play and joke together, but when one inspires a deep feeling within another, that feeling is generally somewhere between annoyance and anger.

That’s what makes it so much extra soft and fuzzy when the moon turns blue and they show some genuine warmth for each other.

Last weekend was Big Brother’s league basketball tournament. This was the biggest tournament of the year, and he had been looking forward to it. The Thursday before the tournament, Big Brother got sick. We thought he’d be better in time, but when he woke Saturday morning it became clear he wouldn’t be able to play.

He and I were both disappointed. As he sat in his pajamas, coming to terms with disappointment and his physical discomforts, Buster took me by the arm and whispered into my ear. “Can you make him stay upstairs and you come downstairs with me?”

Big Brother didn’t look like he was going downstairs in the next few minutes, so I just went down with Buster. “Can you get me paper and a pencil?” Buster asked, leading me toward the drawing paper the boys use to make birthday cards for their friends’ parties.

I got him a piece of paper and a crayon, because crayons are better than pencils for Hallmark occasions. He sat at the dining room table and folded the paper into card form. Looking up at me, he said, “I need help with the words.”

I nodded. “What do you want to say?”

He told me his thoughts and I spelled the words for him. He wrote the letters as I dictated.

 

The best cards are made of crayon on paper.

All the words were his. Only the spelling was mine, except for the word “BAeTter” where he kind of got ahead of me. It didn’t matter. The meaning was clear.

A mouthful for a boy to say to his brother.

Big Brother came downstairs. Buster made me stand guard so Big Brother wouldn’t come into the dining room. When Buster was finally done with the illustrations, he handed the card to Big Brother with the understated, brotherly tenderness that comes with the single word: “Here.” “Here” is the most caring word in a boy’s lexicon when it accompanies a hand bearing a heartfelt gift.

Big Brother read the card. He didn’t know how to react. At last, the brotherly instinct took over. His face brightened just a bit. “That’s really nice,” he told Buster. He put the card down on the coffee table and life went back to normal.

Everything that needed to be done or said was done and said. The exchange lasted a brief instant, and that was exactly the right length for it. If it had gone longer, it would have turned fake.

This was real, and it had to be allowed to sink down underneath, where brothers keep it.

 

We got game – family style

Big Brother just finished his second season of playing organized basketball. He seems to have found a sport he loves. He’s pretty good at it, much better than at soccer. This is not surprising since he seems to have good hand-eye coordination but is not a natural athlete. Soccer limited the use of his best asset; at least he was allowed to use his eyes.

We have a hoop in our driveway and he often wants me to play with him. Sometimes I do, but sometimes, like in February, it’s too cold for old folks to be shooting hoops outside. And sometimes there’s a good basketball game on TV, where we old men play most of our sports. These days, my best athletic moves involve transforming from the upright to the reclining position.

Meanwhile, the boy has received, as gifts, at least three small, indoor hoops that hook onto the top of doors. Mommy shudders every time he gets one, because he always wants to hang them from the door of his bedroom. This ignites the age-old conflict between moms and playing ball in the house. For my part, I see Mommy’s point, but I also remember how fun playing ball in the house could be, so I have mixed emotions.

As a compromise, Big Brother was allowed to hang a hoop over a door at the bottom of the basement steps. When he has a friend over, they can often be found playing basketball in the basement. This is doubly good, because not only does it keep the big kids from in front of any game I might be watching on TV, it encourages the little boys to go downstairs and play in the toy room there.

I’ve grown accustomed to hearing talk of slam dunks from the bottom of the stairs, but last weekend I heard something new. After the friends had gone, there was still the noise of kids playing basketball in the basement. Big Brother was sharing the sport he loves with his little brothers. “Is this a three pointer?” I heard Buster ask. Big Brother explained the rules; he was actually teaching them.

I love this on lots of levels: first, I love that no one was fighting – that’s always a plus in our Itchy & Scratchy household. I love that the little boys are developing an interest in basketball. I love that admiration for their big brother is the cause of this. I love that Big Brother wants to share one of his favorite things with them.

I called the boys to come upstairs for dessert. Big Brother and Buster came up, but Big Man kept practicing. He needs to stand on the second stair to get the ball near the hoop. I asked him what he wanted for dessert. “Nothing,” he replied, “I’m paying bassetbaw.”

There he stayed, practicing his second-stair shot. I’ll remember this day when he’s swishing three-pointers. I hope Big Brother does too, so we can be proud together.

 

"Paying bassetbaw."

“Paying bassetbaw.”

img_0072

With a two-step handicap.

img_0070

Is better than cookies.