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.”


With a two-step handicap.


Is better than cookies.



Just put the ball through the hoop; it’s that simple

The most recent video gaming system we have is a PlayStation 2 from around the turn of the century.  The older boys turn to it when they need a change from their small screen games.  “Can we play a game on the TV?” they ask. This is my chance to tell them about the olden days, before Wi-Fi, when the only choice we had was to play our games on big screens plugged into the wall. Those were hard times.

After my sermon, if no good sports are on TV, I might let them use the appliance to play like the old people did. Their favorites have been Simpsons games, from back when young people used to watch that show and use products associated with the brand. These are one-player games, and I have two boys chomping to play, which means taking turns, a rotten system for having fun.

To overcome this difficulty, Big Brother and Buster have begun competing at sports games. In these long, school-less days before Christmas they’ve discovered a college basketball game. Seeing them play this together is much more entertaining than watching them destroy Springfield with the Plow King truck.

Big Brother plays on a real basketball team and has a good understanding of the rules. He knows what all the buttons on the game controller do and how his virtual players respond to his actions. Buster knows the ball is supposed to go through the hoop. You get points for that. He’s happy just to hold a controller in his hand, as long as he’s mostly sure pushing its buttons has some vague relationship to what’s happening on the screen.

This disparity of understanding leads to a mismatch. Buster has won every game so far. Instinct? Luck? Virtual motivational skills? I don’t know, but it’s funny to watch.

Our strategy is to win.

Our strategy is to win.

Once the score gets into double digits, Buster has to ask who’s winning.

“You are,” Big Brother moans.

When I ask him how the game is going, Big Brother complains about his team. “It’s not me. My players can’t make any shots.”  That may be true, but a coach takes responsibility for making his players better.

Big Brother starts out playing as our Spartans, but last time he got so discouraged he switched, in an act of outright betrayal to his father, to the University of Michigan. Buster doesn’t care which team he plays; he’ll motivate his guys to put the ball in the basket.

“Hello, Blue Jays,” Buster mocked as his big brother’s new, blue team took the court.

“They’re not Blue Jays,” Big Brother bristled. “They’re called Michigan Wolverines.”

“Hello, Michigan Wolverine Blue Jays.” Buster’s already taken trash talk to an esoteric level.

Big Brother has been a good sport, but sometimes his frustration gets the best of him. He tries to trick his brother into taking full court shots. “Shoot it from there and you’ll get 9 million points.”

Buster doesn’t need 9 million points. He’s already up by 21 with two minutes remaining.

The secret league of horrible parents

We just won a moral victory of sorts. It took two months, and there were times I doubted the Fates would allow it, but now that it’s done, I feel free to speak of it.

I mentioned that our seven-year-old son was on a basketball team. If you saw that post, you may think our victory is a decision to keep score at the games, but it’s not. It may be even more valuable than that.

Over our three years in sports, there has not been a team that didn’t require a rotating list of hapless parents to bring healthy snacks for the kids to eat at the end of every game. The Team Snack was the Sacred Cow of youth athletics. God knows, kids playing ball for an hour would wither to dust if not fortified with granola and sugar-free fluids within seconds of the final whistle.

When I was a boy, we played all afternoon without a thought to our bellies, but then we were not enlightened enough to know we were doomed to die young for our bad habits. We drank whole milk too, to give you an idea of how recklessly ignorant we were. Our parents were the worst, making us have fun all the way until dinner time. For shame.

My wife and I dislike game-day snacks because we struggle to get to the games on time without having to remember the groceries, and it’s not like we can just grab a bag of Doritos or Oreos on the way out the door. These evil snacks we have, but only because our tragic upbringings neglected to teach us any better. Blame the 1970s.

old school

After the game, we had to take up the planking from the pasture and milk the cows before we could even think about eating. (Image: Russell Lee/US Farm Security Administration)

They told us it couldn’t be done. They said the kids on a snackless team would grow envious of the other team’s snacks, though I don’t know a single kid who covets a V8 juice box and a bar of pine needles. Still, no one would want to be on the team whose bad parents didn’t do exactly what the good parents do.

So after the first practice, we waited for that email – the one organizing the snack rotation. We’d highlight a game on the schedule, dread it’s coming, and hope we were both available to attend, so all our children and all our snacks could be at the same place at the same time.

The email never came. The coach was new, and I don’t think she even thought about snacks, which makes me love her a little bit. For the entire season, we went to games where other teams had snacks. Our team never bemoaned our lack of snacks. I saw no indication they even noticed. From our team’s other parents, I never heard a peep about snacks. Our snackless rebellion was our little secret.

I now suspect that many parents dislike the post-game snack, but no one publicly decries it, because that might make them the worst parent ever, and who would ever dare flirt with that consequence?