Monday, February 5, 2007

Good Blog, Sam

Tonight I happened to see my son Lincoln toss a book from his bed to a chair across the room. Without thinking I said "Good throw", to which he immediately replied "Sam." We both laughed and he remarked that he didn't even mean to say the magic phrase, that it just came out of his mouth without thinking. The in-joke here is that around our household variants of the phrase "Good swing, Sam" have come to mean anything done poorly.

"Good swing, Sam" came out of a Little League baseball game when Lincoln was about 8 or 9 years old. Before then, we were like all parents who cheered, coaxed and encouraged our little Lou Gehrig no matter how well or poorly he performed. With each passing year, however, the praise he earns is more realistic.

I'll always be there for him when things go south. When he was 11, he surprised everyone, including himself, by pitching the best ERA on his team through the first four games of the season. Then he suffered a complete meltdown on the mound and had to be relieved after giving up 5 runs in one-third of an inning. I felt so very badly for him, but I also instinctively knew he was experiencing something extremely important in his development toward manhood. After the game, he and I sat on a park bench until long after the last car had left and all the lights had gone out, using his pain to talk about a lot having to do with life.

But at other times he just plain swings poorly. He knows it, I know it, everybody knows it. It just happens, and I think it's a dishonor to lie to him. I just keep quiet. I've spent enough time teaching him how to talk to himself when things start to turn ugly, so he doesn't need my comments crowding his head. But with each passing year, as the players get older and the game starts to turn more competitive, it amazes both of us how many parents continue to blather inane platitudes at their kids.

It was during the spring season of 3rd or 4th grade when one of his teammates would get up to the plate and strike out every time. The only chance he had to get on base was to be hit by a pitch. Each time he came to bat his parents were ready with a never-ending supply of well-intentioned but ultimately meaningless pep talk.

As a prototypical example, when young Sam stands motionless while a hittable ball sails right over the center of the plate for strike one, his parents will almost inevitably call out, "Now you're ready!" If the second pitch sails three feet over his head and he somehow resists the urge to swat at it like a tennis serve his restraint will merit their rousing cheer of "Good eye, Sam!" Once the next pitch settles deep into the catcher's mitt before he fans mightily at it, his parents will enthusiastically crow "GOOD SWING, SAM!!" It's generally only another pitch or two before he is once again trudging back to the dugout, to the fervent applause of exactly two people.

I feel like I am veering dangerously close to making fun of poor Sam, bless his heart, which is not at all what I want to do. Let me be clear: as a kid, I was the Sam on my team. As the saying went, when I was at the plate I couldn't hit the broad side of a barn with the broad side of a barn, and in the field I couldn't catch a cold. I hope Sam went on to find his true glory, for it sure wasn't going to be baseball. I'm glad his parents were supportive enough to cheer him, but I hope they grew wise enough to know when to stop, to take him by the hand and help him find some other endeavor where he could succeed, and to teach him to fail with dignity.

Every youth sports team now gives each player a participation trophy at the end of the season. Lincoln keeps a few that are meaningful to him, but the rest are stored in a box somewhere out in the shed. There is a New Yorker cartoon where a kid comes home dragging in a trophy bigger than he is, bragging to his father, "we lost." I'm glad I have a son who appreciates the difference between praise solidly earned and the overly enthusiastic applause of well-meaning parents who don't know how to help their child find the elusive pearl hidden deep inside pain and failure. They might as well be calling out "we love you, dumpling", and a need to yell that at a game squanders a more important lesson that has precious few opportunities to be taught.

So now, whenever someone at our household tries something and fails miserably, someone else is apt to call out in a friendly manner, "Good swing, Sam." The goal isn't to be cruel. It's to remind each other that abject, unadulturated failure is as inevitable in life as an accidental fart; maybe a little stinky, sometimes embarassing, but ultimately no big deal. The flip side of the equation is that true success merits true praise, and there is never any doubt that it is genuine and well earned, like a ball hit deep over the fence.

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