Tuesday, September 25, 2007

A special first day of school

cha gio, yummySpeaking of back-to-school stuff, this year was special for The Boy. He's back at the Montessori school he went half-days to last year, so starting school itself wasn't that big of a deal. Showing off at school—now that's something completely different.

Ong Ngoai and Ba Ngoai (my lovely wife's parents) came out for a last-second visit. My wife found herself with four tickets to the women's final at the U.S. Open, and they seemed like a logical choice to fill the other seats. My wife's father (who we call "Ong Ngoai" or "grandfather" in Vietnamese) taught his four kids to play and to love tennis. They hadn't been out to visit us in a while, and they'd never been to a professional sporting event—and Arthur Ashe stadium is arguably the best place to watch a match. (For the record: I certainly wouldn't turn down tickets to Wimbledon or the French Open, should anyone want to give me some.)

The women's final was okay, as far as the tennis goes (Henin cruising to the trophy), but the night was beautiful. Before we took our seats, we caught a little of the wheelchair doubles final match underway on one of the grounds courts, and it was startlingly good and fast. We snapped photographs with giant rackets and with the fountains cycling. We rode the escalators up to our seats—which were good, right on the net—and looked quietly over the spectacle of it all. And it was hat night, which meant that we each received powdery blue baseball hats promoting tennis and JP Morgan Chase. We saw Carol King perform a few numbers and then retire to a box where she sat next to James Taylor (and in front of Kristin Davis). We watched the Marine honor guard unfurl an American flag that exactly matched the dimensions of the court itself. There were fireworks. And Donald Trump. The Empire State Building was even lit tennis-ball yellow for the night.

Though Q and The Boy didn't get to take in the tennis with us (we didn't get home until nearly midnight), they did get the benefits of having the grandparents visit. They brought a suitcase full of toys and thick, glossy car books from all sorts of dealerships (a great free present idea for the younger car lover, by the way). Each time they came back from somewhere they brought more things that light up and make noise and do the same to the kids.

And we ate. A lot. Ong Ngoai and Ba Ngoai love to go to Chinatown, which means bowls and bowls of Vietnamese soups with noodles. The Boy also discovered cha gio or Vietnamese spring rolls, and ate so many that we lost count. Q, for her part, tried nuoc mam—the fermented fish sauce—and kept trying it until we could see the fish painted on the bottom of the little bowl. Ba Ngoai noted how funny it was that she liked nuoc mam so much; it tends to be an acquired taste (but then again Q does like to suck on slices of lemon and lime). Then there was the food that Ba Ngoai made at home for us all. We bought fish at the local farmer's market that Saturday, and she turned it into canh chua, a sour and spicy fish soup with pineapple that The Boy likes. Then mi, or egg noodles, with snow peas and other vegetables that Q devoured with the skill and speed of a competitive eater.

After the tennis and Chinatown and toys and dinners and Chinatown, Ong Ngoai and Ba Ngoai left on the Monday right before 9/11. Their flight back to the other coast didn't leave until that evening, so they accompanied The Boy to his first day of school. Since he was a veteran there, his teacher let Ong Ngoai and Ba Ngoai past the locked fire door into his classroom. I wasn't there, but I heard how he beamed as he showed them the red couch for reading, the various trays of sorting work, the humble tubs where the students wash their plates and cups themselves after snack.

That's probably the best way to begin school—proud of the fact that it's yours.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

I love back-to-school conversations

The Boy is back to his preschool now, and like those parents on TV, we ask him how each day was. Sometimes we get great stuff like this:

Me: How was school today?
The Boy: Okay.
Me: Did you meet any new kids?
The Boy: No.
Me: Really?
The Boy: There's that girl that cries all the time and wants her mom.
Me: Who's that?
The Boy: She wears the same shirt everyday.

Maria Montessori must be proud, looking down from that self-directed classroom in the sky.

(I'm certainly laughing down here.)

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

I want to tell them

NEW YORK—The World Trade Center, 1988.
© Josef Koudelka / Magnum Photos

I come into the World Trade Center PATH station, as I do every day now on my way home, and from the train these days the rows of rebar and steel beams make the place look like a grave site, a ditch of bones. Then up the long escalator and the stairs to Church Street and a mob of police, protesters, tourists, and people like me walking fast to get home. Signs about war. National Guard in green fatigues with serious guns. People with camcorders and mics recording in languages I don't speak. The day puts me in my head. I want to tell them what happened here on this day before they were born, tell them why it happened and that it's okay to feel covered by thick sadness, to care for those we don't know. I want them to be small, to fit in my hand, so that I can shield them from falling things. I want them never to smell acres of burning plastic, to run from dust. I want them never to wonder where someone is while really knowing. I want to tell them that wisdom wins in the end and want to believe it. I want to tell them that war ends (and want to believe it). The fountains are on in front of 7 World Trade Center; traffic knots. So glossy and glass, 7 World Trade becomes the sky when you look up into it. (Intentional?) I want to tell them that bodies are soft, held together by something ancient and loose. Up the elevator in the skyscraper where I live; down the long hall. I want to tell them.

Inside they are painting, and it's quiet; they are into their work.

I want to tell them but don't want them to know.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

While we're talking about sports...

All this talk and TV about tennis got me to thinking about my own experience with sports and why my wife and I would like both The Boy and Q to find a home in at least one. It's not because I'm a fanatic of one sort or another (my wife reads the sports pages more religiously than I do, actually); I'm not anxious to drill The Boy out on the grass or the court in the rain to get his form just so. And it's not just because basketball or tennis or baseball or soccer can lead to fast friends and to easier ways to believe in your own body.

I want them both to like sports, well, because of this:

Okay, sure, it's a commercial, but a brilliant one (what are they selling, after all?). We see a mix of professionals and amateurs and what's common between them. The man doing leg presses and the kid working the soccer ball down the alley and the woman running in the low light all move by themselves and for themselves. Sports can flip a switch somewhere that makes a boy want to shoot baskets all by himself in a neighbor's driveway until it's too dark to make out the rim.

It reminds me of a line from Marianne Moore's poem, "A Carriage from Sweden":
... Sweden,
you have a runner called the Deer, who

when he's won a race, likes to run more; ...
Sometimes it's the running and not the race that compels, even if it's the race that gets us up to run. I want them to want that themselves, even if only just a little.

Nike and Marianne More. I didn't see that coming. Just do it, I suppose.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Bonus: Let's keep going with the tennis theme

If you like either tennis or good writing even a little, you could do worse than read David Foster Wallace's paean to Roger Federer, "Roger Federer as Religious Experience." Wallace's article appeared in the August 20, 2006 edition of The New York Times Magazine, but if you've been watching Federer play this year — particularly his awe-inducing comeback against Feliciano Lopez – you'll find yourself nodding as you read it this deep into September 2007.

(I've had a few David Foster Wallace moments myself, but that's a topic for another time.)

Doing (or Tried)

Awhile back I engaged in little hand-wringing over The Boy's reluctance to try. I wrote it shortly after he refused to casually hit some over-sized tennis balls at a local street festival, seeing in that episode a larger trend of failing to believe in himself and of failing to take risks even when he's likely to succeed. Turns out that my worry was the thing truly over-sized.

And all it took for me to see this was a weekend outing to the largest tennis grounds around on one of its busiest days.

Basically each year since The Boy was born we've taken him to Arthur Ashe Kids' Day at the U.S. Open. Until now he's been too young to do much more than marvel at the guys on stilts and overeat the criminally delicious and over-priced waffle fries.

This year, though, he prefers Federer over Nadal, which is to say that he knows who they are. (He also lights up whenever he sees Sharapova playing or otherwise on TV, but my guess is that reflects the dawning of a deeper kind of knowledge, if you know what I mean. And I think you do.) He's also big enough to hit some balls himself on the outer courts.

We head first to the obstacle course right when we arrive because it's sponsored by Hess, and they always give out the best prizes. By the time our spot in the snaking line reaches the court, they've run out of free rackets, but after running and jumping and hitting a ball at a target, The Boy and Q still each walk away with a deep plastic bag carrying a light-up police car, binoculars, and a small hand-sized fan that makes fancy patterns with just a few LEDs. A total hit, in other words.

It's what we do after that, though, that reminds me just to let myself believe in him. The grounds run thick with kids, many of them tweens or teens. It's hot, too, probably around 100 degrees. My lovely wife accompanied The Boy and Q through the obstacle course, but for The Boy to participate in the USPTA Little Tennis hit around on Court 16, he'll have to go by himself.

He does, of course, without pausing even a bit. He takes the racket they give him and hits a series of balls dangling from ropes. When he misses one completely, he stops it and himself and connects, sending a few up and around the larger rope they all hang from. Then he goes where they point him to rows of balls sitting up on curved sticks. He thumps each of them with appreciable form and has a noticeably swell time doing so. He sweats. A lot. Someone snaps his picture (and it's not just his mother this time, if you can believe it). He has a little trouble returning the balls they toss to him over the net — he is, after all, just four years old — so they usher him on to the tall woman holding a ball at the end of what looks like a fishing pole. He hits it off on the first try. Then it's off to get some help returning the over-sized Wilson tennis ball with a novelty-sized racket. He's pretty tired when it's all over, but I can see that it's a good tired, the kind he expresses these days after the soccer and basketball programs he's been enjoying over the summer. He'll walk onto just about any court or into any room these days without any push from us at all. He has moved past trying into simply, well, doing.

Right before we leave (after a lunch of hot dogs priced liked gold bars and a cup of waffle fries), we take a look into Louis Armstrong stadium, hoping to recognize the players hitting around for the kids. Armstrong isn't small, but it's no Arthur Ashe stadium, and you can get close. We find seats just a few rows off the court. In the full heat of the August afternoon, The Boy points to the player on our end in the black shirt effortlessly sending back all the balls that arc and spin over the net to him. "That's Roger Federer," he says. And it is.

Admittedly, seeing Federer glide and flow about thirty feet in front of us was pretty cool. But I was more impressed with and humbled by The Boy in the red shirt sitting next to me.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

New job + U.S. Open =

not much blogging action. Instead of writing at night, I've been taking in the tennis, which has been quite good (as usual).

Sorry for the little hiatus. More is coming.