The first time I ever took my son out to hit a few balls in the yard, he nailed nine out of 10 pitches I threw his way. Yes, this was with a whiffle ball and a fat plastic bat (he was 3 or 4 at the time). But it was a glimpse into a future that excited me at first, and then caused some small terror to creep into my chest.
Atticus, now 7, is naturally in tune with his body. When he falls, he rarely gets hurt. He can run as fast as any of his older friends, maybe even faster. When he zips down the street on his bicycle, he is as swift as lightning. He greets friends with a quick wrestle in the grass. And this winter he started surfing his sled down hills, making me realize it may be time to invest in a snowboard. All of this is great stuff. I think.
Atticus played T-ball the last two years. Even in T-ball I was able to see some of the trouble headed our way. One of the opposing teams had that parent. You know the one. Thick Yankee accent. Chain smoking wife in tow. This guy barked orders at his young children (there were two). “Pay attention!” he roared. “You’re holding the bat like a girl!” Atticus stared in disbelief. I did, too.
It’s the culture of sports that scares me. I know just by saying this I will push a few buttons. But I look around at all I’ve seen over the course of my own life, and it freaks me out.
I played soccer as a child in Dallas, Texas. All of my siblings did. Somehow my mother, single and with five children, managed to arrange for us — four boys and a girl — to make it to practice and all of our games. And my brothers excelled, playing straight through high school and into college. But I grew bored after a few years, the artist in me finding little to hold my attention as I played fullback, waiting for the ball to come my way.
I want for Atticus to live a well-rounded life. To not only know sports, but also art, nature and literature.
Texas has a special sports culture. (You might’ve seen “Friday Night Lights.”) Sports are expected of you, and if you don’t play you are seen as something less than human. I played as long as I could, and then I became one of the freaks who didn’t play. Geek, nerd and faggot were names I was used to hearing. As a young man desperately wanting to fit in, this troubled me deeply. Why didn’t I want to be a Dallas Cowboy? How did baseball work exactly? I grew quiet, drew inward. I bought a guitar. I failed my classes, counting the days until high school came to an end.
Eventually I left Texas, and it felt liberating to move to New England where sports were still important, but not quite to the cultish extent I felt back home. Here I can raise children. Here I can catch a game and not feel obliged to discuss it with every person I meet because I can also see a concert, and maybe a film, or read an interesting book, and we can talk about all of these things, too.
Even with this, it’s somewhat difficult to live on the edge of a fully immersive sports culture. Catching a Red Sox game with my kids is almost cost prohibitive. We don’t have cable television, so we’re unable to watch many of the games. And even if we did, watching them with small children is fraught with problems: commercials littered with sexism, violence and Viagra. (Here’s a money making idea: A sports channel for families. You’re welcome!), as well as doping, homophobia, risk for serious injury and the occasional murder that comes as part of the deal.
Which brings me back to my boy, the natural. I want Atticus to live a well-rounded life. To not only know sports, but also art, nature and literature. To not feel like a freak for liking these things.
This isn’t to say that if soccer were to speak to his spirit in a way that, say, music doesn’t, well I would follow him anywhere. To the countless practices, out of town games, etc. But I would also encourage him to seek a more measured path. We’ve been watching the Olympics this week. I can’t help but wonder how those parents of athletes manage raising a child so talented and driven.
I may be a father concerned that my children won’t feel the same way I do about certain things. But I hope it goes much deeper than that. I want to help my children make the best decisions, and get absorbed in a cult of — well, anything.
A new season will be here before you know it. I’ll dutifully buy the shin guards and socks. I’ll attend every game I can. I’ll root for my boy to beat the other team. But I’ll also secretly breath a sigh of relief if it doesn’t take, and then encourage him to explore the world in all that free time not taken up by box scores, ESPN game highlights and light beer commercials.