Saturday, July 28, 2012

Mrs. Little, Get Out While You Can

Our family started reading Stuart Little as bedtime reading tonight.  We've read it before with Charlie, but this is Teddy's first time through.  We borrowed from the library a wonderful read-aloud version with Garth Williams's perfect illustrations.  

The book opens with the mouse Stuart being born into this human family.  Charlie (age 9.95) stopped me and said "This story starts with Stuart being born?  How could a mouse be born with a human mother?"  I replied "You know that Stuart drives a car in this story, right?  And talks?  There are a lot of 'how coulds...' in this book."  The boy granted that this was true.

What really made me scratch my head, though, came in the book itself.  In a very early scene in which Stewart gets lowered down the bathtub drain to rescue Mrs. Little's wedding ring, I'd never noticed before the task in which the good Mrs. L. was engaged when the ring got lost.  She was cleaning the bathtub after Mr. Little took a bath.  Wait, what?  A mouse in the house isn't all that's wrong with this family.  My advice to Mrs. Little: leave that ring in the drain, go grab some girlfriends and head to a resort upstate for the weekend.  See if Mr. Little appreciates his mate a little bit more and stops making her and their mouse child do all the dirty work.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Book Review Collection: Good Baseball Books

 Having reviewed some OK baseball books, I now move to books that I really found wonderful.  I haven't even brought up the Brothers K, which is a family novel in which baseball happens to figure very largely.  That's a good one, too, though.
Robert Benson, The Game, 2001 (read in May 2003)
My most vociferous baseball fan friend, Jason Roth, lent me this book as a light read for the start of baseball season.  The author is a baseball fan who organizes his chapters around a AAA game between the Nashville Sounds (then the Pirates farm team) and the Iowa Cubs (guess whose farm team).  This is a well-written memoir about the author's experiences playing and watching baseball and passing it on to his children.  It's a quick read and was a fun way to kick off another season of false hope that my team would win that year.  The Pirates had finished in fourth place at 72-89 the year before I read this book and improved to fourth place and 75-87 that year.

David Lamb, Stolen Season; a Journey Through America and Baseball's Minor Leagues, 1991 (read in June 2004)
My baseball book for the season, this book was very satisfying.  My friend Katherine Stikkers gave it to me as she was paring down her household in Pittsburgh.  We've shared a love of baseball and played on a softball team together.  Lamb is a journalist who has had a global career, which started with a unique assignment covering the Braves from a distant fan's perspective for the Milwaukee Journal the year they moved from Boston to Milwaukee.  The unique aspect: he was 14 that season. 

This book is the story of a summer - 1989 or 1990 - when Lamb took off in an RV across the country going to minor league games and soaking up the lifestyle and stories integral to the minor leagues.  Many of his stops are chosen because the teams are part of the Milwaukee Brewers system.  Stops in Stockton, CA, El Paso and Peoria, AZ present the relationship of minor league teams to their communities.  This is a great book for baseball fans, even as it has aged.  Lamb met players who have gone on to successful major league careers when they were still prospects or minor league stars (one rhymes with Mozay Funsayco).  Of course, most of the players he meets never made it to the show or didn't last long enough to become household names.  It's a charming book and a quick read. 

A caution to wives:  if your husband reads this book in spring, keep him off used RV lots.

Neal Karlen, Slouching Toward Fargo, 1999 (read in the early aughts)
The reader can discover a lot from the subtitle "A Two-Year Saga Of Sinners And St. Paul Saints At The Bottom Of The Bush Leagues With Bill Murray, Darryl Strawberry, Dakota Sadie And Me".  Karlen, a hard-bitten Rolling Stone reporter is sent to St. Paul to poke fun at Darryl Strawberry's attempt to return to the major leagues through independent baseball.  The St. Paul Saints and their competitors in the Northern League have no ties to any major league clubs.  The players are hoping to be discovered or just like the lights and the grass or in Strawberry's case are trying to make a comeback, keeping a toe in the game.  Karlen finds that he can't give his editors what they want.  He finds redemption all over the place with a team that has a pig with saddlebags take the balls out to the umpire and where the PA announcer deadpans "train" when a train rumbles past the outfield wall.  Oh, and Bill Murray has an ownership stake.  Our then three-person family got to see a game at St. Paul, and it's a baseball bucket list item for sure.

Frank Deford, The Entitled, 2007 (read in July 2007)
This book was over NPR that summer, and being a baseball fan, NPR fan and Frank DeFord fan, I felt I must follow my trifecta.  This is an engrossing novel for a baseball fan to read.  I would not recommend it to the non-baseball fan.  The jacket quotes from baseball insiders all endorse DeFord as getting the baseball life right.  It certainly felt very authentic and "inside" to me as a reader.  The plot - a star player caught in a scandal and his journeyman manager's response in the midst of what may be his only shot as a big league manager - is compelling.  DeFord skillfully spools out narrative and character development in a way that gathers speed and interest as the story proceeds.  If I have one complaint, it is that the climax and denouement happen very quickly - as though DeFord reached the page limit for which he was being paid and did not care to go further.

R.A. Dickey, Wherever I Wind Up; My Quest for Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball, 2012, (read in June 2012)
I heard R.A. Dickey interviewed - where else? - on Fresh Air.  When I heard that his new autobiography, written with journalist Wayne Coffey, covered not only his development as a knuckleball pitcher but also his childhood abuse history, I was intrigued.  I've read lots of baseball books, and the first person baseball autobiography always puts me in mind of Jim Bouton's Ball Four.  The difference between that book and this one - besides, oh, 42 years - is that Bouton was a self-unaware @$$hole of the first order.  Dickey comes across as much more humble.  His relationship with Jesus forms the centerpiece of his life story.  The book could have been subtitled "Grief, Jesus and Baseball".  Those who aren't so fond of God's Only Begotten may not enjoy this book as much as I did.  Dickey appears to leave nothing on the table.  Some details are only alluded to, but he really comes out with lots of tough stuff in his background,.  The book is not always well-written, especially early.  A memorably banal sentence that starts a chapter irked me: "My favorite time of the year was Christmas."  How many millions of people could have written that sentence about themselves?  It gets better though, and the book hits its stride as Dickey turns to both honesty and the knuckleball in parallel strains of desperation.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Book Review Collection: OK Baseball Books

Having just finished R.A. Dickey's autobiography, I wanted to collect the reviews of baseball books that I've read over the years.  When I went to my source material, I found that although I've really enjoyed some baseball books, there have been some that I could only recommend with qualifications.  So before I get to the good ones, I'll tell you about the baseball books I've read that are really, really ok (or worse).
Dan Barry, Bottom of the 33rd; Hope, Redemption and Baseball's Longest Game, 2011 (read July 2011)
Having attended a Pawtucket Red Sox game a few years ago, I was aware that the longest professional baseball game had been played there.  Then I heard Dan Barry on Bill Simmons's podcast and was excited to read the book.  So excited, in fact, that I turned off the podcast so that it wouldn't spoil the book for me.  The timing of that game - April 1981 - made reading this book more enjoyable for me because I followed the Red Sox (major league club) most closely while living in New Hampshire from 1980-84.  Many of the players on the Pawtucket roster for this fateful game came up to the big club and became household names (at least in our household).  Barry's book is good but not great.  Predictably, the account of what actually happened in the game would make a long magazine article.  To stretch the story to book length, he provides deep background on the players, coaches, owner, Pawtucket civic leaders and even many of the fans who stuck out the long innings.  One feels like those fans must have felt as the narrative drags on and on about that which went before and came after this game while you wait to find out how the game is going to actually end.  Barry succumbs to an old school sports-writerly floweriness at times.  I suppose he's allowed some license when meditating on the philosophical timelessness built into baseball's rules, but it gets a little over the top in places.  I would recommend this book to baseball fans and those with an affinity for the Boston Red Sox, the Pawtucket Red Sox the Batimore Orioles and the Rochester Red Wings in particular.  It's not for everybody, though.

Jim Bouton, Ball Four, 1970, (read August 2011)
My father had this book on his shelf the whole time I was growing up, so I was aware of it.  When it came up on Bill Simmons's list of the best sports books of all time, I decided to go for it.  Bouton was a formerly-great pitcher trying to hang on in baseball in 1969 as a knuckleballer with the expansion Seattle Pilots.  Always a clubhouse outsider, he decided to take notes through the season and write a book.  He would like the reader to believe that he's an outsider because he's an intellectual in a game that favors lugheadedness.  While this may partially explain his status, he's not helped in his quest to be "one of the boys" by the fact that he's a world class jerk.  He's cocky and more than willing to make life difficult for coaches, front office personnel and his teammates.  At the time, the book caused a scandal because the baseball clubhouse and the after-game shenanigans of ballplayers had been secret sanctums.  Bouton exposed it all and got kind of blackballed from baseball for it.  Now, the media exposes things like he wrote about routinely, and this narrative seems quite tame by comparison.  It does give the fan a chance to look inside the game and understand what it was like (in a simpler baseball world) for a player to go to the park each day, to deal with bouncing between the Majors and the Minors, and to deal with trades, both from a personal standpoint and a baseball standpoint.  He went on at 10-year intervals to publish Ball 5, 6 and 7, extended epilogues to the original text.  In those, as life after baseball throws some curveballs at him (sorry), he gets a little more human.   It's a canonical book, but the true baseball fan will enjoy it more than the average civilian.

Tim McCarver and Danny Peary, Baseball for Brain Surgeons and Other Fans, 1998, (read July 2000)
This book came on the recommendation (and generous lending of her copy) of my baseball-loving friend Katherine Stikkers.  McCarver writes from the perspectives of being a Major League catcher with several teams and now a broadcaster.  I don't watch games that he calls enough to have formed an opinion on McCarver, but I know there are fans who don't like him.  One way that the book met Katherine's description of it was in sheer information overload.  McCarver goes into painstaking detail on strategic points of several aspects of the game from pitching to base running to hitting.  Sprinkled into his strategic commentary are rewarding contemporary examples and war stories from his playing days.  The book could have been trimmed by fifty pages and should come with a companion set of laminated cards simplifying McCarver's points for use at the ballpark.  Serious baseball fans who watch a lot of games on TV would probably get the most from this book, but I find myself recommending it to the casual fan in hopes that it will convert them into hard core goners.  In truth, the book (and baseball fandom) may not be for everybody. 

Ross Bernstein, The Code: Baseball's Unwritten Rules and Its Ignore-at-Your-Own-Risk Code of Conduct, 2008, (read January 2011)
Although this book was published in 2008, it started popping up various places in my environment in late 2010. The title and premise rock. The book...not so much. Start with the author bragging about the 30 sports books he's written in the last 20 years. That reminds me of a Pennsylvania winery I visited that produced 54 wines, none of them quite drinkable. The good Mr. Bernstein takes the volume approach. He also starts the book with three forewords by current or former baseball players. I love baseball and baseball players, but three forewords on the topic of the game's unwritten code by player types produce an unappealing drumbeat of repetition about respect and not throwing at guys' heads. It's not as if the book itself isn't littered with player quotes. Bernstein interviewed lots of people. While I admire his hard work, I wish he hadn't showed quite so much of it. The narrative, especially early on, is interrupted as much as five times on a page by block quotes in gray boxes. Obviously, players, managers and umpires have to be the source, but take a little more time and weave them into a narrative. Some of the block quotes are more than a page long. For good measure, he gives the last word to a player, block quoting Dave Winfield, saying something that doesn't really put a button on all that went before. I don't know if it's good or bad policy, but Bernstein saves his best stuff for last. The stuff about throwing at guys gets dull and goes on a long time. Summary: throw at guys when they "disrespect" you or a teammate or the game; don't throw at guys' heads. Second summary: throwing at a guy is easy, and it is really difficult. The stuff about bench-clearing brawls is better. Where he really shines, though, is in talking about stealing signs. The best part of that material, though, focuses less on the code and more on how signs work, which I, as a fan, didn't really know. I wanted more out of this book. Perhaps John Feinstein could rewrite it from Bernstein's notebook (which it felt like I was reading anyway) and come up with a worthy book.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Type I versus Type II Grocery Shopping Errors

Over the years, we've pursued various approaches to grocery shopping, from shopping together to alternating to finally me doing 98% of the shopping.  While it was nice to shop together when we were first married, I much prefer one person doing all of the shopping.  We run a pretty tight shopping list regimen, but there are some staples that I just monitor in my head (bananas, breakfast juice concentrate, Teddy's provolone) and buy when I know we're out.  That's hard to do when we alternate.

Results of a Type II Error
Still, with a good list and a limping-along brain, it's possible to make mistakes.  I've decided that I prefer to make what I call a Type II grocery error rather than a Type I.  I define Type I as not buying an item we need and Type II as buying an item we already have stocked.  When we were young and poor, fiscal caution would make a Type II error slightly more painful.  Now, I prefer to just put the extra in the pantry and know that we'll use it eventually.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Confirmed: cheap gas

When I reviewed our Mazda 5, I complained that the gas mileage wasn't as good as we'd hoped.  Rather than the rated 22/28 city/highway, we were seeing around 18 in the city.  Now that we've gone on our first road trip in the 5, I have more to say about both useability and fuel efficiency.

Audi A3 owner and Mazda 5 owner enjoy the big sea-foam.
First, we found the car to be quite comfortable for our family of four and more than our share of beach gear on a recent trip to the Outer Banks.  Turns out our 5 had the most cargo capacity in the trip fleet, which also consisted of a Toyota Prius and an Audi A3 wagon.  In addition to our luggage, we ended up with 5 boogie boards, the beach shovel,  some buckets and the Pro Kadima.  We did draw the line at sand chairs.  The 5 may be bigger than a Prius and an A3, but it's still a microvan.  With the extra stuff, we were able to pack the back (third row seats folded, of course) and still allow visibility out the back window above the load.  We'd heard Mazda 5 owners complain that it doesn't provide much space for the little passenger-oriented stuff (e.g. sunglasses) on a trip.  We found it has plenty of space for us.  We found space for each boy's backpack, one for the parents and the snack bag.  The cruise control runs predictably and well; it's a good highway cruiser.

The one complaint on a hot summer drive was that the air conditioning seemed at times to need a "reboot".  After working quite well for hundreds of miles, both the cooling and the air movement of the fan would just start to poop out for a while.  We developed a technique of turning everything off for a few minutes, then turning the fan back on before turning the A/C back on.  This voodoo may have been a lot of foolishness, but it did seem to work to get the cool air flowing again.

Second, the fuel efficiency: it's not terrible on the highway.  We recorded an average of 25.9 mpg with a high of 30.2  Again, we'd love to get better fuel efficiency, but that's a marked improvement over our city mileage.  Speaking of which, for those of you who use your supermarket discount gas program (ours is Giant Eagle's FuelPerks at GetGo), you may be getting exactly what you pay for when you buy that cheap gas. 
For  a while, especially when they created the virtuous circle of food purchases earning gas discounts and gas purchases earning food discounts, I got my gas almost exclusively at GetGo.  Over four months, though, I've recorded an average of 18.8 mpg city on GetGo tanks and 19.9 mpg city from other gas stations.  I haven't done the full break-even math to figure in the gas discounts and the food discounts I earn by getting gas there, but I have adapted my policy to only get gas there when I'm going to use my discount on a big tank. My neighbor tells me Sunoco and BP return the best fuel efficiency.

Finally, having bought the 5 in November, I've discovered a design issue that only presented itself in the summer and will only affect certain drivers.  I carry a Leatherman Micra on my keychain, I have hairy legs, and I wear shorts.  The way my keys hang out of the ignition, the little round rivet-hinge-things on the Micra yank painfully at my leg hair.  It's a small price to pay for having a life-saving multi-tool at the ready, but it does hurt.  My brother-in-law fessed up to having the same new right inner knee-cap bald spot, and he doesn't drive a Mazda 5, so this problem afflicts other cars, too.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Menu Plan Man

Before the house wakes up,
I sit with tea and cookbooks
and - of course - the calendar
planning the week's menu.
Some nights don't need a dinner plan
besides "Little League concession stand".

What can we make with zucchini?
Where is that recipe?  
I know I saw it.
How did these magazines get out of date order?
Musing like only an artist of routine need do,
I seek inspiration in what's on hand.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Apparently not Mysterious Enough

OK, so my mystery post lacked the potency of a real mystery.  After less than twelve hours, two smart guys had solved it in the comments.  These diagrams do indeed represent the timeline of our family's dining room table.
Pre-kids, quiet, candlelit gourmet dinners, string music tinkling in the background (or something like that; it's hard to remember).  This diagram represents tables in three apartments and for a while in our first house.
With our first boy at the head of the table in his high chair.
The boy drops his tray and pulls up to the table between mommy and daddy.

Only when boy number 2 comes along does boy number 1 move to the side of the table.  Soon after, he begins being able to operate a knife, which makes this configuration much more viable.  Gosh, these dinners stank.  Some small human constantly needed attention or help with the process of getting food into his mouth.  This stage also included lots of hopping up to get a food, vessel or implement that didn't make it to the table during table-setting.  Rare restaurant meals without children are savored like never before or after.
Goodbye high chair; hello youth chair; hello fork.  Mommy and Daddy still need to cut your food up and stuff.
Just weeks ago, the younger heir started wielding his own knife.  We considered it high time (after nearly 10 years) that we rejiggered our table into a configuration that does not include a boy at the head.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Mystery Post: Diagrams

Can you figure out what this series of diagrams means?  Respond in the comments. The answer will be revealed either by you or by me in a few days. 


Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Today's Chaperone: Chopped Liver

At the end of the school year (no, I haven't really substantively posted since then), I chaperoned my fourth-grader's field trip.  We went to Camp Guyasuta, a boy scout camp improbably close to the city.

I've been privileged to chaperone several field trips over my boys' school years.  Some in the group I chaperoned last month, I've known since kindergarten.  It struck me, though, how different it feels to chaperone fourth graders than kindergarteners.  On my first field trip's those kindergarteners were so interested in me and hung off me and asked me all kinds of questions.  When I took a picture of my son, they all wanted me to take a picture of them.  On this fourth grade trip, I was invisible.  They behaved pretty well, and they listened when I tried to help the trip leaders enforce rules, but they had no interest in me or even in knowing whose dad I was.

Of course, the rock star treatment is fun, but that's not why I chaperone field trips.  As long as I keep them safe and take some burden off the teachers, I don't need the kids to clamor around me.  It did show me how my son and his classmates have developed into a different stage of life.  As much as I hate to say it, the "tween years" start at nine.  Between the affinity toward adults of the young years and the hostility of the early teen years comes the distinct indifference of the current stage.  

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Savoring the spicy moments

There was a day when my kids were peppering me with questions.  I thought "I need to salt this memory away because thyme passes so quickly."  Actually, I have to confess: that's only parsley true.  My friend, who is a ginger and a mom with a cockney accent was talking to 'er friend Cori and 'er mom when she thought up that joke.  When she told it to me - back when it was chili outside - I said sagely "you're a nut, Meg."  She sprayed me with mace.