Little things

chess-board“Joey, two steps to the left.” Cupping both hands around his mouth, Aaron bellowed to his right fielder, “Jack, take a few steps back.” Like pawns on a chess board, Aaron directed players to different positions on the baseball diamond. The left handed batter stepping up to the plate had not hit a ball to the left side all day. It was all about probabilities and percentages. The group of nine and ten year old boys kicking dirt and smacking fists into their gloves had overcome extreme odds to arrive in the little league championship game. Aaron wanted to do everything in his power to lead the team on the final step of their journey.

With two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning and up by one run, there were runners on second and third base. The batter at the plate was not the most fearsome hitter on the opposing team, but he was not to be taken lightly, and Aaron knew that.

As the batter stepped into the box, waggling his bat in the area of the strike zone he envisioned the ball arriving, the umpire behind the plate pointed towards the pitcher’s mound as if to say, “Your move.”

Aaron was never a chess player, but he couldn’t help but feel there were so many parallels between it and the game of baseball. He suspected that these conclusions could probably be drawn between many seemingly unrelated things in life when we chose to scrutinize them a bit more closely.

“Strike two!” Aaron had a way of slipping into a daydream state from time to time. It was both a blessing and curse, depending upon the situation. Coming back to the present situation on the field, he realized that the umpire’s call meant that his team was one strike away from hoisting the trophy sitting behind home plate. It was a little league championship game comprised of just eight teams, all playing within a ten mile radius of each other. To these boys, however, this game may as well have been the World Series.

A nervous habit adopted from his childhood days, Aaron adjusted the position of his cap and called out some final words of encouragement to his pitcher, “Here we go Jimmy, straight and true.” It was a mental reminder he had established with the ten year old over the course of the season – to empty his mind and let his arm release the ball straight and true, like an arrow.

Jimmy’s abbreviated windup had the ball traveling forward, four seams spinning in slow motion as the ball approached home plate. Desiring to hear a thump in the back of the catcher’s mitt, everyone in the stands instead heard the distinctive ping of aluminum bat meeting ball. The backspin imparted on the ball launched it airborne in the direction of right field.

Aaron could tell immediately that his decision to move Jack, his right fielder, back a few paces was the right decision. He didn’t need to move an inch. He was positioned in the perfect location to record the final out. He was one catch away from being the hero. He had shagged fly balls much more difficult than this countless times before. As the ball hit the leather in his glove, Jack squeezed tight feeling the security of the baseball in the back of his glove.

baseball-on-groundThe feeling of triumph was overwhelming. They had done it. They were victorious. They were champions. And as though some surreal and cruel warping of time had occurred, Jack realized that the final words of this heroic ending had not yet been written. The ball, hitting the fleshy part of his palm ricocheted into the webbing and out of the top of his glove. As he watched the ball, almost in slow motion, fall to the ground, he could simultaneously see the runner from second base cross home plate.

The celebration Jack had envisioned was taking place right before his eyes – for the opposing team. Staring at the ball laying on the ground, Jack pulled his cap over his eyes and hung his head. He wanted to climb into the gopher hole on the other side of the right field fence and disappear. With the rest of the team dejectedly trudging back to the dugout, Jack remained in right field, embarrassed and heartbroken.

Aaron had both hands gripped around the fence in the dugout. Even though every member of his team save one was now gathering around him, his eyes were focused on the right fielder who had his chin buried in his chest. Aaron could feel the anguish in this kid’s heart. Jack was not only Aaron’s right fielder. He was also his son.

Aaron realized that Jack would not make the walk back to the dugout on his own. The remainder of his team was coping with the loss in their own way – some cried with sadness, some threw their gloves against the dugout wall in frustration, and some handled it with grace uncharacteristic of a disappointed ten year old boy. Coming around the fence, Aaron began the walk out to Jack, trying to figure out with each step what he would say and how he would say it.

As the distance closed between father and son, Jack raised his head to greet his dad’s gaze some twenty feet away. Aaron could see the tears streaming down Jack’s cheek. Reflected in those tears was the memory of a time twenty-five years ago when Aaron felt exactly the same way.

The echo of sneers from the auditorium injected more pressure on the eleven year old Aaron than he felt he could handle. “Air ball, air ball,” came the pleas from fans of the opposing team. Standing on the foul line, the scoreboard behind the backboard showed their team down by one point with two seconds left in the final quarter.

He had just been fouled driving to the basket for a layup that would have put his team in the lead, surely securing a win in the semi-final game of the youth league tournament. He now stood, looking up at the hoop fifteen feet away. “One bucket to tie, two to win,” Aaron whispered to himself. Following through on the routine he had practiced so many times before, he took a breath, dribbled, looked up, and let the ball fly.

The arc of the ball looked perfect in Aaron’s eyes. Surely, the signature swish of ball meeting nylon net would be the next sound greeting his ears. Instead, the clang of ball meeting the back of the rim had the basketball flying back right at him. If his heartbeat wasn’t racing before, it was now. Aaron realized that he had just missed out on an opportunity to win the game for his team. But, he still could tie it up and force overtime. That wasn’t such a bad alternative given the circumstances.

Going through his routine again, Aaron hurried through the process so as to reach the desired outcome expeditiously. As if the pleas from the crowd had some tangible influence on the result of this free throw attempt, the basketball missed everything – no rim, no net, no nothing. As the clock resumed, one final second elapsed before the buzzer sounded. Aaron’s team had been eliminated because he couldn’t make one lousy free throw. Wanting so desperately to handle the situation with grace, Aaron couldn’t stop the tear from forming in his eye and trickling down his cheek.

The thirty-six year old Aaron realized that he was now face to face with his son in right field. As disappointing as that memory from his childhood was, he now had a smile on his face. Draping his right arm around Jack’s shoulder, dad squeezed and said, “I’m proud of you.”

sometimes-win-learn“Why? I dropped the ball,” uttered Jack between sobs. The look of confusion on his face was unmistakable.

“Did you try your best?” asked dad.

“Yeah, but we lost,” replied Jack.

“Sometimes we win, and sometimes we learn,” replied dad.

“What did I learn? I learned I can’t catch a fly ball to save my life,” whimpered Jack.

The smile on Aaron’s face was a knowing one. As much as his statement about winning and learning was directed towards his son, it was the memory of what happened after the missed free throw twenty-five years in the past that left him with a smile on his face.

As he coaxed his son back towards the dugout, Aaron kept a hand on his shoulder as if to convey that everything would be okay. “How about we stop and get some ice cream on the way home?”

“But … we lost,” questioned Jack as he looked up at his dad.

“Yeah, well ice cream always helped me after a tough loss. How about it?”

“Okay, sure, I guess so,” replied Jack not really understanding how ice cream helped to get rid of his guilt, disappointment, and embarrassment. Aaron thought to himself, dad knows best.

As they pulled into the parking lot of the old style ice cream parlor, dad and son approached the counter side by side. “Two vanilla cones with rainbow sprinkles please,” requested Aaron from the worker behind the sliding glass door. The smell of chocolate chips, strawberries, and fresh whipped cream escaped through the portal to the magical world of ice cream on the other side of the glass. As if the intoxicating scent of these ingredients was indeed medicine for an aching heart, Jack’s shoulders seemed to droop a little less. The frown on his face became a little less pronounced.

Handing one cone to his son, Aaron led the way to a picnic table around the corner. The creamy vanilla ice cream seemed to be a type of magic elixir, removing disappointment and replacing it with contentment, one lick at a time. Looking across the table, Aaron didn’t initially see his son. Instead, he saw a vision of himself from the past, sitting across from his own dad, sharing the same ice cream treat after facing his own disappointment on a basketball court.

As minutes passed, the conversation between Aaron and Jack slowly migrated from talk of the game to other topics, things ultimately more important than the result of some seemingly monumental baseball game. Looking across the table, Aaron started to chuckle as the ice cream mustache on his son had matured into a full-fledged beard.

Jack looked over at his dad and asked, “What?”

Aaron picked up the remnants of his cone and smashed it on to his face creating a matching ice cream mustache and goatee. “I think we could both use a shave,” chortled dad to son. Jack let out one of those unbridled authentic giggles turned into uncontrollable laughter – the kind that makes your stomach hurt in the best way possible.

little-things-are-the-big-thingsThe vision of his son covered in ice cream – and more importantly – a genuine smile on his face was more gratifying than any image involving him and a league championship trophy. More than any life lesson he hoped to share with his son, Aaron wanted Jack to know that little things become the big things – like the unforgettable memory of an ice cream cone and giggle with your dad. It took Aaron twenty-five years to grasp this truth. Better late than never, he thought. And if he could help one young boy discover this nugget of wisdom sooner, then it was definitely worth the wait.

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Mindful heart

storms-over-the-oceanAs we stand and gaze out over the horizon, storm clouds rising in the distance, high tide beginning to tickle our toes with foamy water, my mind can’t help but wander. I look to my son with a grin on my face and express, “You know, if we just start swimming east, we’ll eventually end up in Africa.” He chuckles with sarcastic disbelief. The mythical journey would find us swimming our last few strokes towards a new continent, approaching the western shores of Morocco. How grand an adventure would that be? There is something magical about the grains of sand beneath my feet, a power within that allows these magnificent dreams to take flight. My mind begins to wander even further.

Arms wrapped around my sweetheart’s neck, feet sinking into the sand with each lapping wave, lips locked, butterflies fluttering about within, I reminisce about the very first evening seventeen years ago when I met the woman who would become my wife. Words were spoken, but unnecessary. I could see forever in her eyes.

Several years later, walking along the dunes with my six year old son, the same ocean provided solace during an especially difficult time in his young life. We caught a glimpse of new life in action as newborn leatherback turtles, small enough to get lost in the palm your hand, emerged from underground and began their trek towards the deep waters of the ocean. I fondly recall the sense of courage conveyed by these tiny creatures, to father and son alike, in the face of overwhelming adversity.

There is a quiet serenity in the sights, sounds, and scents provided by this wondrous power of nature. Each time I take the time to engage in a conversation with the sea through my senses, beautiful things transpire. This past weekend was no exception.

As is customary in our household, Friday night is movie night accompanied by pizza for dinner. Except it is Saturday night and we’re having smoothies and wraps instead of pizza. But, hey, flexibility is an admirable trait, right? On the playlist this evening is Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Having consumed the first five books of this series in a period of two months, my son is following suit with the theatrical renditions.

At the completion of the movie, I remember hearing a memorable quote and I am struggling to recall it. As the movie credits are rolling, we all disperse to do our individual thing. My wife at her computer processing photos, my son wandering around aimlessly, giddy from the experience that is Harry Potter. Meanwhile, I am engaged in perhaps the most mundane task, gathering and emptying the trash from around the house. Well, I assumed it was going to be unexciting.

As I reached for the plastic receptacle beneath my son’s desk, I was greeted with the most unexpected trash item. At the bottom of the container sat little globs of the blue raspberry gelatin that we made earlier that day. Returning to our family room, I inquired to the general population “Should I even ask why there is blue Jello in the trash can?” My son’s response, very sincere, was “It fell on the floor, where else was I supposed to put it?”

There is an amiable serendipity that often visits me when I least expect it. And usually it arrives just when I need it the most. After recovering from the ensuing laughter of this trash experience, my wife called me over to her computer. She wanted to share a picture with me that she had captured while taking our family walk on the beach.

father-and-son

In my last post, a first foray into the land of fiction, I spoke of everyday events causing something to shift in our perception of the world. Sometimes almost imperceptible, there is no doubting when this occurs. The first glimpse at the photo displayed on my wife’s computer screen did just that.

Guide by the hand and lead by the heart. Reflecting on my son’s comical response to his trash disposal ideals, I can see we may need to spend a little more time on the guidance part. But more significant to me, is the second part. Lead with the heart. I want him to look over the horizon, perched at the edge of one continent, and feel it is not only possible, but probable, to reach the coastline of another land that is beyond what we can see. I want his imagination to run rampant. Too often our creative thoughts are interrupted by the devious and misinformed ploys of what we call the real world. The most compelling way to overcome these negative pulls toward the black hole of reality? Lead from the heart. Allow the seemingly impossible to become possible.

A picture speaks a thousand words. And sometimes it embodies many more sentiments. This simple arrangement of digital pixels, millions in number, carried with it a commensurate depth of emotions. Not only because of who is in the picture, or for the message it conveys, but also for the beautiful person who captured it. The person who cared enough to open my eyes to the influence we are able to impart on a future generation. The same beautiful woman, my wife, whose eyes seventeen years ago showed me a glimpse of how glorious forever is when you are with the one you love.

It is not our abilities that show what we truly are. It is our choices. ~Professor Dumbledore

Finally, the quote that had eluded me returns to my consciousness. We find ourselves captivated by magical worlds projected onto the canvas of a movie screen. Filled with majestic castles, levitation potions, magic invisibility cloaks, and mischievous house elves, we wish we could visit, or even take up permanent residence in these enchanted lands. We fail to realize that same magic can be created on the blank canvas presented to us at the beginning of each day in our lives. We are the producers, directors, and participants in that movie. When we lead from the heart, we cast our own spell, we create our own magic. We have to make that choice. Keep a mindful heart. Choose well.

satellite-beach

All aboard

polar-expressAs the rails begin to hum with excitement, our attention is drawn northward. Bending an ear in this direction, a hush falls over the landscape as we listen intently for the tell tale broadcast. Soon thereafter, the repetitive ding at the nearby railroad crossing secures the deal. The freight train is approaching. As it draws nearer to our position, the resonant drone of the diesel engine grows with intensity until the blinding headlights create an aura of light, a halo as we like to call it, right around the bend. With the mandatory signal of long-long-short-long horn blasts, the locomotive is upon us. Racing by at speeds exceeding fifty miles per hour, it seems faster. As the interlocked cars pass by with a distinctive and predictable click-clack, you can do more than hear it. You can feel the power vibrating through the ground, up through your legs, and into your chest. As quickly as it arrives, it disappears into the night. However, the more compelling experience precedes this one.

While many people are irritated by the sight of flashing red lights and lowered arms at a railroad crossing, my son looks forward to it. With much fervor. Consider it a yin and yang balance of the cosmos. For every ten annoyed individuals, my son more than makes up for it with his excitement. Catching a glimpse of any moving train is a worthy objective in his book. Every evening, around nine o’clock, a long distance train on the Florida East Coast Railway barrels through our area carrying a mix of freight from Jacksonville bound for Miami. It has become a nightly ritual to drive the two miles out to our viewing spot and experience the awesome power of three locomotives pulling this freight along to its final destination.

As we arrive at our place near the tracks, we are left with time to ourselves. No cell phones, no television, no distractions. I am a self-proclaimed introvert. Outwardly, I am a quiet person. If you could peek into my mind, however, you would see a million conversations going on at once, mostly with myself. Even with my own son, I sometimes fail to find the right words to share with him. But, this time and place beside the rails is a hot spot for communication where ideas and thoughts flow freely between us.

Sometimes we talk about innovative rockets that he has designed and piloted to Mars in his space simulator. We imagine new inventions that will change the world. We have heart to heart talks about things that might be troubling him, or me. We notice that Jupiter is inside the constellation Orion on this clear and starry night, and we contemplate the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe. And sometimes, we don’t talk at all, and yet we speak to each other louder than any audible voice. It is as if that spot next to the tracks is a sort of father/son sanctuary. This is a safe haven to talk about anything on our minds, or nothing at all and just be together. Both are equally valuable.

The thing about trains … it doesn’t matter where they’re going. What matters is deciding to get on. ~Conductor, The Polar Express

real-thingsWe have traveled on trains all across the country. And every evening that we trek out to our special refuge by the tracks, we board another. This train, however, is not one that carries us to a new physical location. Rather, it is the journey of a relationship. It is dad and son taking the time to talk, to share ideas, to travel to faraway lands, and to imagine the most extraordinary possibilities. To connect. And although in the end we do witness a real train passing by, there is a not so small part of me that hopes the real joy in my son’s heart mirrors my own. It’s not the delight of seeing that roaring locomotive that tickles my soul. It is the treasure in traveling down the tracks on our own train that we share as father and son. Tracks that can take us anywhere we choose to go.