Tennis With The Man Boy

Tennis With The Man Boy

Tennis original hand drawn collection

By Vic Sizemore

I am playing summer tennis at Peaks View Park in the midday sun. Sweat runs inside my sunglasses, makes them slippery on my nose. My deodorant is beginning to fail and at certain swings of my racket, I catch of whiff of my stinking animal body. I take my time between volleys to get myself back to the baseline. Though I am the better player, he is several inches taller than I am, young and in better shape. He just dropped one over the net and I almost tripped trying to reach it in time. My knee and hip both ache from the jarring attempt.

The side parking lot has a steady flow of college kids here for disc golf. A boy smokes weed at his open trunk. A girl pulls up beside him. They gather their discs and head over the hillside toward the course.

I take him to deuce three times. Back at ad out, he slides a serve down the line and I swat it into the net. As we switch courts, I hold my racket out flat and he lays three Wilson balls on it.

I stuff all three balls into my right front pocket and lean my racket into the net. We both swig from our water bottles and rub the icy condensation on our faces. I take off my sunglasses and dry my face with my shirt. The man who just beat me is my son. Just through his first year of college, he is home for the summer. He takes a long swig of water and gazes out over the park.

While he is not looking, I size him up. Tall, lean but broad shouldered. Strong. In that moment, a memory hits me. I am racing my ex-wife J from West Union, Ohio to the hospital in Maysville, Kentucky, where the doctor on call, a stranger to us both, worked his rubber-gloved fingers in and out of her.

“He’s breached,” the doctor said, and he mashed and kneaded J’s stomach with such rough force, I worried he would injure the baby, who nevertheless stayed breached. They prepped J in a rush and performed an emergency C-section. I sat by her head and watched the procedure in the mirror above. The smell of singed flesh rose into the room as the hot scalpel cauterized the wound as it cut. The fatty tissue inside J’s split stomach was shockingly white.

A nurse spread the incision apart with a shiny steel tool, and the doctor pushed the fingers of both hands into the cavity of J’s torso and pulled out a red baby boy. His head was round, not squeezed into the shape of a banana by the birth canal, dark hair slimed down flat.

“You okay, dad?” a nurse said. “Do you need to sit down?”

“I’m okay,” I answered, staring at this creature.

Another nurse, on the other side, said, “You want to cut the umbilical cord, dad?”

I took the snips from her and cut the cord, purple and shiny as wet plastic.

The nurses immediately swept the boy off to the pediatrician’s table under a warming light, and the doctor immediately went to work stitching J back together.

“Dad,” a nurse said, “do you want to meet your son?”

On the table, the boy’s body folded itself back in half, as it was in the womb, heels to ears, no bigger than a bag of flour. His purple scrotum was swollen, full and tight as a new Hacky Sack. The warming light was hot on my forearm as I greeted him. He turned, squinted up at me, intense, confused.

As the memory flashes through my mind, the intervening nineteen years collapse on me,  into this impossibly brief instant. This might be his last summer home, who knows. I want to grab him in a hug but I don’t.

Instead I walk to my baseline and say, “I’m going to play for real this time.”

He chuckles, nods, and spins his racket in front of him.
Vic Sizemore’s fiction and nonfiction are published or forthcoming in StoryQuarterly, Southern Humanities Review, storySouth, Connecticut Review, Portland Review, Eclectica, Sou’wester, and elsewhere. His fiction has won the New Millennium Writings Award, and been nominated for Best American Nonrequired Reading and two Pushcart Prizes. Sizemore teaches creative writing at Central Virginia Community College.

illustration © bioraven







Mad About Sports

Mad About Sports

By Kate Haas

unnamed-3My four-year-old son stands on our neighbor’s lawn, holding a purple plastic baseball bat over his shoulder, his eyes alight with excitement. As far as I know, he has never picked up a bat before.

“Throw me the ball, Mama!” Nate calls.

Reluctantly, I put down my book, get up from the porch and pluck the whiffleball from the grass. I toss it in his direction; he swings and misses. Confusion clouds his eyes.

“Keep your eye on—” I stop. This phrase cannot possibly be emerging from my mouth. I try again.

“I mean, uh, just keep watching the ball, and swing the bat when it comes near you,” I manage. It feels like an awkward attempt at a foreign language. I toss the ball again. Thwack! It sails over to the next yard. He does it again the next time, and the next. He hits that ball with the bat all afternoon. I am no judge of these things, but my kid appears to have a knack for baseball.

To some, this would be a cherished scene of parenthood: the proud mother, the eager youngster, the wholesome passing on of the sporting tradition. Not to me. The thing is, this isn’t my tradition. People in my family did not play sports. Readers all, we regarded athletics with a combination of bewilderment and disdain. We didn’t join teams or wear uniforms, and to this day we remain completely indifferent to anything whatsoever concerning professional athletes. When I was growing up, it was understood that the sports section of the newspaper went directly to the trash. My siblings and I got plenty of exercise running around the neighborhood, but gym class was the bane of my school days.

I was picked last for every team in P.E. I daydreamed in the outfield or talked with the other bookish outcasts. When the ball came my way, I avoided it. Team captains groaned when I came up to bat but I endured their scorn with fortitude because I knew my cause was righteous. They might have been popular and cool, but my strength was as the strength of ten, not because my heart was pure (it wasn’t) but because I was a reader.

As a reader, I knew what was important, and hitting a ball with a bat was not it. Nor was throwing a ball into a basket, kicking a ball into a goal, hurling a ball at another person, or doing sit-ups. Kindness, courage, loyalty, standing up to oppressors, protecting the weak, wielding power wisely: these were the values I had gleaned from reading. Values which (as anyone with a claim to human decency will attest) are conspicuously absent from most P.E. classes.

The party line held that participating in the boring, arduous, and unpleasant activities of P.E. would confer indispensable benefits later on in the Real World. I doubted it. Did Lucy engage in sit-ups before opening the wardrobe door into Narnia? Hardly. True, Narnia wasn’t exactly the real world, but it felt a whole lot more real than the one I lived in. The world in which mean, loutish boys who could throw a ball received the acclaim of peers and teachers, while bookish, uncoordinated girls like me were (at best) objects of pity.

Having to throw a ball around when I could have been happily reading a book made me grumpy and miserable. But after twelve years of sports-induced misery, I escaped to college— and just like that, it was over. It was hard to believe at first but gradually the reality sank in: No one was ever going to make me run, jump or throw a ball again for the rest of my life.

As the years passed, unmarred by forced basketball, dodge ball, or even badminton, I mellowed somewhat on the sports issue. With the wisdom of age and experience, I was willing to concede that not everyone who enjoys sports is a mindless adherent to all that is worst in American culture. Some of these people, I now understood, actually find athletics as vital to their happiness as reading is to mine. Some of them are my friends.

I did not, however, expect to give birth to one of them.

At first, there was no cause for alarm. Simon, my older son, was just as attracted to all things beautiful as he was to chasing a ball. After he spent the summer of his fourth year wearing a dress, I figured my future involved schlepping the kid to and from play rehearsals and cheering him on at debate team events, a prospect I relished.

I don’t recall exactly when I realized that my younger son didn’t seem destined for the life of an introspective poet. It could have been when, at fifteen months, he hurled himself down the playground’s twisting tube slide—the same slide Simon didn’t venture on until the age of three. It could have been right after he turned two, when a stranger watching my uncannily agile little boy maneuver around the climbing structure asked, as so many had before her, with an awestruck expression, “Is that your kid? How old is he?” By the time Nate climbed onto a bike (without training wheels) at age three and took off down the sidewalk with the confident balance of a pro, I could no longer deny what was perfectly plain to everyone else: this child was a born athlete.

My older son’s delight in books had thrilled me. “That’s my boy,” I thought with pleasure, when Simon begged for one more chapter of The Trumpet of the Swan. It was the thrill of recognition. He was my boy, after all. I had never doubted that my children would inherit my love of literature. My husband, a biologist, took it for granted that they would be at home in the woods. (They were.) My husband is as indifferent to sports as I am, so watching Nate in action fascinated us both. How had we produced this astonishing little dynamo?

More disconcerting than Nate’s athletic abilities was the pride I felt as I watched him climb, pedal, and race his way through life. I could hardly take credit for Nate’s physical fearlessness, yet I was absurdly pleased each time someone complimented me on it. I did my best to conceal this. “Yeah, well, God only knows what he’ll be up to at sixteen,” I’d answer wryly, shaking my head as Nate hurtled past on his Razor scooter. Isn’t he amazing? I wanted to shout. But how could I? Hadn’t I scorned this sort of thing my whole life?

Perhaps it’s precisely because Nate’s action-oriented nature is so foreign to me that it captivates me so much. How can I help rejoicing in the fact that my child possesses something so uniquely his own? I never expected my kids to be carbon copies of their parents, of course. But that one of them has a talent for athletics is delightfully exotic. Watching Nate’s intent, joyful expression as he does anything physical, I feel like the discoverer of some foreign land. And maybe, I’ve started to believe, living on its borders will be pretty interesting.

That thought isn’t always easy to maintain. Lately, parent after parent has been prophesying my future with “a kid like that.” “Just wait till soccer practice starts ruling your life,” they say, knowingly. In the view of these seasoned parents, soccer practice and its accompanying, weekend-devouring games are simply a force of nature, like a tsunami; there is no option but to be sucked under. Even a mother I knew to be a fellow reader could offer no mitigating vision of the future when I protested that this wouldn’t be happening to us.

“Yeah, I thought the same thing, back when I was a vegetarian who read books all weekend,” she told me. “And then I had these boys. Now I’m eating hot dogs at the games and organizing the practice schedules.” She laughed merrily, as though this transformation from bookworm to soccer mom was simply one of life’s delightful ironies. I shuddered. I love my son, but watching a weekly soccer game—even with him in it—has all the appeal of an afternoon at the DMV. (Will the other parents despise me for reading on the bleachers?) Of course, it’s possible that a similar transformation will occur in my case, too. Could it really be as simple as: My Child + Soccer = I love watching him play? I suppose I’ll find out.

Still, the prospect of soccer momhood troubles me far less than the thought of how sports culture may affect my son. Sure, I enjoy the sight of Nate careening around the neighborhood on his bike and scooter. But when I picture him in a uniform, on a team, I flash back to high school and its rigidly segregated hierarchies. What if loving sports turns my son into a jock? Someone who looks down on everyone not similarly gifted? Someone who—God forbid—doesn’t like to read? It may well be true that team sports build character. But the characters of the male athletes at my high school were all pretty much the same: arrogant, entitled, and—how to put this—less than literarily inclined.

My husband has three words for me whenever I go on one of my tirades about the conformist tribal rites of Little League and the dreadful possibility of raising a mindless jock: Get over it. Growing up in our household, Nate will know full well that kindness, courage, loyalty, standing up to oppressors, protecting the weak, and wielding power wisely are more important than winning any soccer game.

Of course, there are those people—several of my friends among them—who claim that sports can be the ideal venue to transmit these very values. The part of me still mired in adolescent hostility toward high school jocks wants to argue this notion. But the rest of me, the part that really knows better, can’t help conceding that my friends are right. I’ve heard their stories, after all: the fidelity to teammates, the sense of justice acquired through learning about fair play, the satisfaction of working toward a shared goal. I may have found P.E. unpleasant and pointless all those years ago, but I realize that my experiences are just that: mine. Many of my friends credit participation in sports with everything from shaping their characters to preserving their mental health, and I have no reason to doubt them. (Didn’t books do the same for me?)

As I listen to them, I realize that I want what they are describing for Nate. Not sports, necessarily, but something they and I shared, readers and jocks alike: a passion.

I’ve long believed that I’m a reader because I was raised by readers in a house full of books. But it doesn’t always work that way. I have reader friends whose parents kept the TV on all day and barely read to them. They found their way to the library, just the same. Perhaps our love of reading, like Nate’s apparent talent for athletics, is more a gift than anything to do with our upbringing. I don’t know whether Nate’s love of physical activity will be the thing that sustains him over the years or whether some new passion will be revealed. Whatever it turns out to be, that joyous dedication to something is what I really want for my son.

I see it in him now. I watch him speed his scooter around a corner, his body leaning effortlessly into the curve, his face intent and deeply happy. I recognize that expression; I’ve sensed it on my own face often enough while reading. It’s the look of someone absorbed in what he loves, caught up in the unselfconscious enjoyment of his powers, a simple moment of transcendence.

Author’s Note: At the skate park recently, a teenager watching Nate in action turned to Simon. “Your brother’s a rad little dude,” he told my seven-year-old, admiringly. I’ve sometimes wondered if Nate’s natural derring-do might ever be a source of tension between him and his more cautious older brother. But Simon reported this compliment excitedly, obviously thrilled to be addressed from on high in skater lingo. I was thrilled on his behalf.

Kate Haas is an editor at Literary Mama. Her essays have appeared in the Boston Globe Magazine, Salon, Brain, Child, and other publications. Read more of her writing at

Brain, Child (Fall 2007)

Photo by Scott Boruchov

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Should You Let Your Child Quit?

Should You Let Your Child Quit?


By Delia Lloyd

Debate_A_v2 for webLike many parents these days, I’m guilty of raising two classically over-scheduled children. We race from piano lessons to craft club and from soccer matches to chess tournaments. And there’ve been more Sundays than I’d care to admit when I’ve been relieved to discover that the swimming pool has flooded so we can’t make it to swim class.

But I always insisted—to myself, if not to others—that my kids’ busy lives were a reflection of them, not me. They were curious. They were energetic. And if they had lots of interests, my job as a parent—within reason and budget allowing—was to enable them to experiment with those interests and see which, if any, developed into a true passion.

Until the day my 11-year-old son, Isaac, came home and told me that he didn’t want to play the violin anymore. And suddenly, I had to dust off my parenting playbook and revisit my assumptions about how much of what my children do is about what they want vs. what I think is good for them.

I concluded—along with my husband—that there were certain things I just wasn’t going to allow them to quit.

I’m not necessarily proud of this decision. I’ll never forget the time when the two of us were on vacation in our early 30s (pre-kids), lounging by the swimming pool, when we overheard a father get into the water with his daughter to work on her front crawl.

“That was two good strokes and one bad stroke,” he shouted. “Do it again!” My husband and I looked at each other and shook our heads. “What a nightmare!” we whispered to one another. “We’d never do that to our kids,” seemed to be our tacit bargain. What a difference eleven years makes.

As soon as my son announced that he was “tired” of violin and wanted to stop playing, I realized that there was no way I was going to let him quit.

Part of it was how I felt every time I heard an adult friend lament about the day she gave up playing the piano … the violin … the flute … the clarinet. “If only my parents hadn’t let me quit!” was the common complaint. Isn’t hating your musical instrument part of growing up?

I was also worried that as my son grew older and showed more of an interest in— and aptitude for—soccer, his well-rounded, inquisitive nature might be sacrificed in the name of sports. Precisely because sports are cool and violin—well not so much. I feared that he might emerge from adolescence a one-dimensional adult.

It was also around this time I read Michelle Obama’s list of parenting rules for her daughters. These include having them play two sports each, one they picked and one she chose for them, precisely because she wanted them to learn how to work harder at things they found difficult.

I imagine that some people who read the First Lady’s list might have questioned that rule. But I found myself agreeing with Mrs. Obama. There’s a real value in old-fashioned perseverance. And with all the talk of “life skills” these days, I don’t think it’s a bad idea for children to start learning the value of commitment early on, even when they find something onerous.

I’m not saying that I make my kids follow through on every single thing they’ve started. French lessons for my daughter came and went. My son was excited by drama for awhile. And then he wasn’t. But he’s been playing violin for six years now and he’s actually pretty good. To give up now would be to turn his back on a huge investment of time, money, and effort over the years, all for something I’m fairly certain he’ll regret, if not now, then later on.

I guess I’ve come around to the view that there’s a certain “eat your spinach” quality to parenting. (For the record, I also make my kids eat their vegetables.) As parents, we aren’t always right, but we are there to help our children see the value in things that they might not be old enough—or mature enough—to appreciate in the moment.

I hope I’m never as overbearing as that man in the swimming pool all those years ago. But I also hope that one day my kids will thank me for not letting them give up too easily.

Delia Lloyd is an American journalist/blogger based in London. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post’s She The People blog, and blogs about adulthood at Realdelia.



By Kristen Levithan

Debate_B_v2 for webThis fall I did something I never thought I’d do before becoming a parent: I let my child quit.

I’d signed my son up for preschool soccer after he had enjoyed his inaugural season last spring. Danny had liked being on the team, sporting his canary yellow jersey, and giving piggy back rides to his teammates, even though he generally showed more interest in trying to climb up the net than in putting the ball into it. When the time came for fall registration, I asked him if he wanted to play again and he enthusiastically said yes.

From the first practice, though, I could tell that things weren’t going to go well. Danny was uncharacteristically aggressive with the other kids, dribbling the ball into them and tussling with them when the coach turned away. When the games started, he began each one excitedly, cheering for his teammates and hustling to keep up with the action. But then something would set him off—an accidental trip, a misunderstood direction from his coach, or a goal for the other team—and he would collapse into tears, march to the sideline, and sit out for the rest of the game, inconsolable.

The same scenario played out the next week. And the week after that.

At first, I refused to entertain the idea of allowing him to quit. Like many of us, I was raised to finish what I started. I didn’t quit soccer, even though it held no appeal to me. I finished games of Monopoly, no matter how interminable. I blanched at the idea of sending the wrong message to my son, of turning him forever into a shiftless fly-by-night.

But then I realized that my reluctance to let Danny quit had a lot more to do with me than it did with him. I was embarrassed by the thought of explaining my decision to the coach and then pacing the sidelines for the rest of the season—my other son was on the same team—wondering what the other moms were thinking of me. I was so busy doing what I thought a good parent should do and worrying about other people’s opinions that I forgot to think about what was best for my son.

When I finally stopped to talk to him, I began to understand why soccer was rubbing up against every vulnerable place inside of him. We danced around issues of perfectionism, frustration, and anger and, though I still don’t know exactly why Danny went from a kid who liked soccer to one who hated it, I knew that quitting was what we were going to do.

Ultimately, I believe that letting Danny quit taught him to listen to his gut and to speak up for himself. It signaled to him that, even at five-and-a-half, what he thinks and how he feels matter more to us than blind adherence to a theoretical principle. And I hold these lessons in as high regard as I do the ones on perseverance and commitment that I worried he was missing.

Allowing Danny to bow out of soccer mid-season also underscored my belief that childhood should be about exploration and experimentation, about letting kids test their wings while we’re still around to catch them if they fall. Giving our kids the option to quit celebrates the idea that they should have the chance to try out new things without the expectation that every new thing will fit.

In the end, letting our kids abandon activities that don’t work gives them the chance to try other things that might. For Danny, that thing turned out to be swimming. He’d loved his swimming lessons over the summer and asked to try them again this winter. With the soccer debacle fresh in my mind, I was reluctant to enroll him in another organized activity: would this just be another $50 down the drain?

But on the first day of lessons, I knew that swimming was a better match for my boy, for now. He waved to me as I headed for the door to the waiting area and then paddled over to join his classmates, a purple pool noodle tucked under his arms. At the teacher’s request, Danny dipped his head under the water and came up for air, a wide smile on his face and droplets of water clinging to his eyelashes. His laughter let me know that he—and we—were in the right place.

Kristen Levithan is a freelance writer and mother of three. She can be found online at

Brain, Child (Spring 2013)

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By Craig Cox

Archive_CheckmateThe boy got up uncharacteristically early last Saturday, but he’ll do that when he’s excited about something. And he was pretty excited about the competition looming over at Minnehaha Academy’s north campus, where he was about to join three hundred other kids from around the Twin Cities in the Student Chess Association’s fall tournament. He even combed his hair.

The parking lot was full, so I eased the Oldsmobile up against the curb on the south side of the school, and we followed the other bleary-eyed parents with kids in tow. The entrance was marked by a piece of paper taped to the window. Inside, there were more parents—and even more kids—wandering the hallways and talking on cell phones. The parents looked remarkably unconcerned about the prospect of spending an entire afternoon watching their brood hunch over a checkered board and move sculptured plastic pieces from square to square in a game designed for ninth-century noblemen with time on their hands.

We clambered down the red and black bleachers onto the gym floor, which was covered with a brownish plastic tarp. I felt the familiar slight buzz of adrenaline; at one time it had coursed through my body whenever I set foot on a basketball court. If the tarp had been removed, the long lunch tables pushed into a corner, the baskets lowered from their perch near the ceiling, and a basketball placed there on the sidelines, I would have buried a couple of fifteen-foot jump shots—just like the old days. Instead, The Boy spied the registration tables over in the corner under the big Redhawks sign, I ponied up fourteen dollars, and we set off to find his team.

The West Chess crew, which represented several school chess clubs along with my son’s homeschool one, Checkmate, was holed up in a second-floor classroom, getting ready for the contest ahead. Three coaches, each resplendent in a red t-shirt bearing the team’s logo with his first name on the back, counseled the kids on various moves. The head coach, a young man whose jersey identified him as Matt, was working through scenarios with a boy of about eight who carried his right arm in a sling. For a fleeting moment it occurred to me that maybe this game is a little rougher than advertised.

Later that day, I found myself planted on the hard plastic bleachers alongside another Checkmate parent. Her son, Zeke, was having a tough go of it in the early rounds. Zeke was out there, about at the free throw line, doing his best to checkmate a sixth-grade opponent, who appeared from our vantage point to be yanking large chunks of hair from his head.

The Boy was farther up court, almost across the center line, the place where a good defense might bring a second guard over to trap the guy with the ball and try to force a turnover and an easy fast-break bucket. He was facing the bleachers, his fourteen-year-old face implacable as usual, as his opponent, a baseball-capped teen in Jordans and saggy basketball shorts, leaned back in his chair as if he had a double-digit lead deep into the fourth quarter.

Because I have been known to occasionally recognize irony when it slaps me in the face, I realized then that any middle-age delusions I had about reclaiming my jock-spent youth through the exploits of my son were probably not going to be nurtured in this particular high school gymnasium on this particular Saturday afternoon. And as I swam for a moment in one side of this curious epiphany and out the other, I noticed that, across the court, The Boy’s opponent had risen from his chair and shuffled nonchalantly down the long table to converse with some other players.

“Can he do that?” I asked The Girl, who had come to cheer her brother on in a rare demonstration of sibling sports solidarity.

She didn’t know, of course. And there seemed little to be gained by tromping out onto the court to argue with the officials, since I spotted no striped shirts and whistles in the building. I could’ve made like Bobby Knight and flung a chair, I suppose, but at whom?

Besides, The Boy didn’t seem to be bothered. And every time the baseball-capped kid returned to his seat, he seemed a bit stumped. Maybe The Boy had trotted out some exotic gambit or castled his knights in a brilliant display of Grand Mastership for which Mr. Nonchalant had no answer.

Then, suddenly, it was over. The Boy extended his small hand across the table in a show of sportsmanship that made me smile, and the two foes gathered up the board and pieces and ambled over to the scorer’s table to report the outcome.

I caught his eye as he skipped up the bleacher steps toward the West Chess locker room. “Did you win?”


I followed him upstairs, where Coach Matt was blaring out pieces of an old Doors song (“People are strange, when you’re a stranger…”) and reciting lines from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The Boy’s friend Zeke fired back with some Weird Al Yankovic (“Why did you have to go and get me so con-sti-pay-ted . . .”). The Boy reported the results and sat across the board as Matt, still smiling, went through the moves. Baseball-cap Guy had thrown the Queen’s Gambit at The Boy—the first time he’d seen it—and the coach patiently explained how to counter it.

My son took it all in and happily retired to a corner of the room, where he would throw it all at Zeke—who, despite a disappointing day (he’s one of the best players in the club), kept the Weird Al schtick running full blast. Nobody appeared the least bit annoyed, though Matt complained that he was beginning to lose his voice and was worried about his audition tomorrow.

Somebody asked him what he’s auditioning for.

Jesus Christ Superstar,” he said.

*   *   *

It’s after four when we finally shuffle out of the gym. The Boy finishes the day with two wins (one by forfeit), three losses, and no trophies. He’s pretty beat by the time we get home.

But later that night, we’re sitting across a chess board from one another and he’s doing the Weird Al thing as he gleefully destroys his old man in three straight matches.

I can feel the old adrenaline surging, the competitive juices flowing, but he just laughs and wipes out another bishop, a wayward knight on his way to a quick and humbling checkmate.

We shake hands. “You know, you shouldn’t be so smug,” I say, utterly demolished.

He looks at me, momentarily stymied, this guileless teen who never took to Little League or soccer but loves to climb trees and roller blade and tumble on trampolines. “But, Dad,” he says. “This is supposed to be fun.”

Author’s Note: I’d never been to a chess tournament before the one I describe above, and the fact that the games took place on a basketball court really sparked for me the disconnect between my own dream of athletic excellence and my son’s lack of interest in organized sports. Whether we admit it or not, most dads want to cheer their sons on through the kinds of sporting challenges we all faced as kids. In the end, though, Martin has a much more mature outlook on the sporting world than I did at his age. He doesn’t dream of playing shortstop for the Minnesota Twins or corner- back for the Vikings. He is perfectly happy doing what he’s doing in the moment, and for that I am very grateful. (My daughter, by the way, is a pretty good soccer player!)

Craig Cox is the editor and publisher of The Minneapolis Observer, a monthly journal of local news, opinion, and populist culture. This essay originally appeared in the December 2004 issue of The Minneapolis Observer.

Art by Oliver Weiss

Brain, Child (Summer 2005)

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The Post Game Report

The Post Game Report

Art postgameMy son, Daniel, had been playing soccer since pre-school. And his 5th grade travel team had a tough competitor that afternoon. As the goalie, Daniel had let in seven goals in the second half. The game ended as a dismal shutout. And, as he threw his goalie gloves and ball into the trunk and got into the back seat of the car I gave my usual, “you were great today,” and then added, “that team was just really good.”

“Are you kidding?” he responded, with a look that reminded me of when I told him his Ferrari poster board project, complete with messy cut outs, crooked glue sticking and obvious spelling errors was a winner. “I sucked out there,” he said. We sat in the field’s parking lot, the car still not turned on. I looked into the rearview mirror to catch a glimpse of his face. His hair was dripping with sweat and he had dirt streaked across his beet-red cheeks. At first he wouldn’t make eye contact.  But then slowly and deliberately, he looked up, as if I had challenged him to do so.  I had expected to see tears but, instead, was met by his steady glare.

“And, by the way,” he said, not taking his eyes off of mine, “let me give you some advice – as my mom, that’s the worst thing you can say to me after a game. From now on, when I sucked don’t tell me I did great.”

But I am your mother, that’s what I am supposed to do is what I wanted to say in response but instead watched him turn away and look out the window. “So don’t do that anymore. OK?” he added in a softer voice.

It took me a long time to understand how to be a good parent spectator at my children’s sporting events. I was never one to yell, “why did you swing at that?” at Daniel, during one of his baseball games. Or “faster! faster!” at my daughter Emily at a swim meet. In addition to hearing some parents yell, “what’s wrong with you?” and “can’t you go any faster than that?” at their own kids, I would occasionally sit next to a fellow parent who would say “miss” under her breath at an opposing team player preparing to take a foul shot during a basketball game. Or make a hissing sound at an umpire after he called a strike on a 3-2 count at a baseball game. I, on the other hand, had always opted to “staying positive.” So, regardless of the outcome and no matter how good or bad my children’s individual performance had been that day, I would inevitably blurt out, “you did great today.”

But after that ride home from Daniel’s soccer game, I realized it was time to re-evaluate my post-game approach. Thus, on a day when he played catcher and forgot to tag the runner sliding home, I tried, “that must have been frustrating out there today.” And, when my daughter gained time in her 100-yard freestyle event, I said, “maybe you went to bed too late.” Based on their “seriously?” reactions, I eventually abandoned this new attempt at honesty. Luckily, around the same time, I came across a blog post that cited a study about how to be a good parent spectator. It described that college athletes deemed the worst part of their high school and recreational sports experiences the ride home with their parents.  Mostly because, win or lose, the conversation was usually about how that play in the field could have gone better or how the ump made bad calls at the plate or how the coach made a wrong decision in his pitching choices. Once in the car ride home, the athlete wanted to transform back to kid again, with the spectator once again becoming the parent.

I thought that was exactly what I had done, telling Daniel he played “great” at goalie even after he had let in seven goals during the second half. But after reading the blog post, I realized that I had been mistaken. Daniel needed me to be a mother in a different kind of way. And he told me so. I never did tell him that he “sucked” in the car ride home from a game, even one where he missed an easy pop fly out in left field and didn’t get a hit the entire game. Instead, I started to tell both my children what those same college athletes remembered as the best thing their parents would say to them in the car ride home.  And it was simple. And so true. The antithesis of telling them that they were great when they had a bad day.

“I love to watch you swim,” I say to Emily after she has a slow start off the blocks and thus gains time in a race. And, “I love to watch you play baseball,” I say to Daniel even after he walks the opposing team around the bases and the mercy rule is imposed. Because, as Daniel walks away from the baseball diamond and Emily from the swimming pool, they transform back to being 12 and 14 year old kids. And, as I walk back to the car, with my spectator chair slung over my shoulder, I become their mother – exactly who I’m supposed to be.

Author’s Note: I spend a good part of many weekends sitting on bleachers. If I’ve learned anything as a mother these past 15 years, it’s that my kids don’t want me to tell them how great they played or swam, especially when they had an obvious bad outing. Sometimes I say, “I love to watch you play/swim” on our walk back to the car. Other times we head to the parking lot in silence. “I love you no matter what” is what I really mean, what I really want to say. I hope they both know that.