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Monday, April 30, 2001

My Field of Dreams

My daughter played her first baseball game yesterday.

She’s almost 7 years old, so the full skill set is still in development, just as with all of the kids at her age. They’re still trying to master which way to hold the glove, when to run on the bases, how to get the ball from one player to another.

They work on this skill a lot. In practice before the game, a simple game of "catch" with one of the other kids quickly becomes a game of "go get the ball" for both of them. For some reason, it’s a little harder aiming at a target your own size than it is tossing it back and forth with Dad in the yard. But they’ll get better the more they do it, and we'll keep practicing each day at home.

They’re still working on some of the basics of the game, like knowing where and how to play your position. There has been some improvement since the first practice, when the batter hit a slow grounder between shortstop and third base. Neither of the players in those positions was paying any attention, distracted by a plane flying overhead, so they were completely unaware that the ball had rolled by them. But some of the other kids noticed, and they all started running for the ball. It was eventually picked up somewhere in left field by the first baseman, who threw it back towards the infield, where it bounced, rolled, and hit the shortstop -- who was now finally looking towards home plate -- in the back of the leg.

As much trouble as a simple grounder can be, a pop fly is trauma-inducing. At this level, a ball hit in the air is more harrowing than hail falling on a new car dealer’s lot.

Some of these kids have obviously watched the pros play, because they’re all set to imitate the big leaguers. Ask them to toss you the ball, and they have to go into a full pitcher’s windup. I swear one of the kids stepped into the batter’s box, tapped home plate, and then used the bat to smack her sneakers as if she were knocking mud out of her cleats.

Every team has specialists. The kid whose head is too small for the batting helmet, which falls off whenever he runs. The kid who comes to bat and points to the outfield in Ruthian style as he takes the first of three mighty swings, none of which comes close to the actual pitch. The kid who can field the ball cleanly but refuses to throw it, insisting instead on chasing every runner personally.

My daughter has shown a special aptitude for groundskeeping. That patch of grass gets worked over by her feet more than the hardwood floor at a flamenco dance class -- all while wearing the sneakers with the heels that light up every time she takes a step. She’s the first pyrotechnic grass grooming gal.

Meanwhile, in the parents’ bleachers, we’re shouting the usual phrases of encouragement: "good swing," "nice try," "way to go," "you look cute in that catcher’s mask." Any batted ball that gets past the pitcher is enough to start a standing ovation. One father threw in a "good eye" to his at-bat son, who was surprised to hear that the ball had even been pitched.

Fortunately, we don’t have any adults who get overly excited -- no bleacher rage, yet. No one has shown the tendency to run on the field and scream at the 13 year old umpire just for having the temerity to call their son out on a close play at second base. Frankly, we’re all just happy that the runner and the fielder remembered to move towards second base in the first place.

None of this matters, of course, as long as they’re having fun, and there were a lot of smiles on their faces yesterday. They have no idea what the score is, how many outs there are, what inning it is, or whose turn it is to bat. And they couldn’t care less, as long as they get to play and wear the uniform.

Ah, the uniform. The highlight of my daughter’s day was putting on the hat, the pants, the socks, and -- how cool is this? -- the shirt with her own name and number on the back. Talk about your ear-to-ear smile.

After the game, on the way home, I commiserated with her over a strikeout in her final at-bat. I told her that when I was 8 and started playing Little League ball -- there were no leagues for 6 and 7 year olds then --I struck out a lot, too. Lots of kids did, and always have. But, I told her, as the season goes along, you’ll get better and better.

She thought about this for a moment and then turned to me with a big smile and asked, philosophically, "Dad, can I sleep in my uniform tonight?"

Yes, because you obviously have your eye on the ball.

Monday, April 09, 2001

The Toilet Bowl Poll

Another compelling survey crossed my desk this week (those of us in the media are fortunate to receive vital, life-impacting survey results like this almost every day).

This new survey has to do with the bathroom habits of Americans. It was conducted on behalf of the National Association For Continence, who, as you know, are engaged in an ongoing vitriolic debate with their arch-rivals at the American Society For Incontinence.

The NAFC survey shows that the average American spends about an hour in the bathroom every day. I’m not sure whether this is all strictly toilet time, or if it also includes brushing your teeth, singing in the shower, and picking up the little subscription cards that fall out of all the magazines you’re reading on the bowl.

If it includes time in public bathrooms, they’ll have to subtract the large amount of time wasted while attempting to dry your hands with the forced-air hand dryer -- which, in the history of humanity, has never sufficiently dried a single hand on the first run-through.

You are no doubt wondering about the methodology used to conduct a survey of this magnitude and importance. Turns out that some research company was hired by the NAFC to "randomly poll 1,001 Americans in shopping malls nationwide."

Stop and picture that for a moment. You’re at the mall, somewhere between the department store perfume counter attack mob and the Cinnabon place that malevolently pumps the aroma of their sweet-smelling baked goods through the mall’s air ducts in such a way as to guarantee that your nose pulls the rest of your body directly to their counter.

Suddenly, a man with a clipboard approaches and asks in hushed tones if he can talk to you for a few minutes about your personal bathroom habits. Instinctively, you shout, "Security! I’m being accosted by a perv over here!" End of survey.

Or, perhaps you prefer to play a little game with him by replying, "Thank goodness! I’ve been walking around for days waiting for someone to ask me some bathroom questions! I can’t wait to share my most intimate toilet experiences with you! Please, ask me about urinal cakes and cushy seat covers and how many sheets of Charmin make the perfect amount to guarantee a nice clean tushy! Yes, let’s go. I want to tell you my most personal toilet habits and talk lavatory lingo!"

Instinctively, the polltaker would shout, "Security! I’m being accosted by a perv over here!" Again, end of survey.

Most people feel awkward talking about their bathroom habits. We’re not even comfortable using the bathroom in someone else’s house, because it means entering alien territory.

Remember when you were a kid at a friend’s house and had to go? Nothing was where it should have been. Your friend’s Mom used potpourri or something else to keep the scent clean, and you were going to befoul it. She had towels that were far too nice for your skin and nothing that looked like the Ivory soap you had at home. Instead, there was a bowl of shell-shaped things that seemed to be only for decoration. There’s a classic scene in "The Flamingo Kid" with Matt Dillon that captures that ambience perfectly.

I relived this horror recently when my wife and I were having dinner with some friends at a fairly nice restaurant.

At one point, I excused myself to use the men’s room. This is usually a hit-or-miss proposition at a restaurant, because the bathroom is more often than not located in uncomfortable proximity to the kitchen and, on a busy night in most places, gets about as much sanitary attention as your average gas station restroom.

This one was different. In fact, it put to shame every other bathroom I have ever been in. Once I had finished my business and returned to our table, I had to tell everyone how amazing it was.

The room was spotless, as if it had never been used. No splattered water marks on the mirror or anywhere. A candle burning in the corner (!). Liquid soap in a real silver dispenser. Magazines fanned out on the counter for your reading-while- seated pleasure (all the magazines were current and trendy -- no two year old Newsweek here -- you had a choice of Bon Appetit or something similarly upscale and obviously not chosen by a guy). Real faucets, not those find-the-sensor automatic gizmos that dispense water for nearly 3 seconds before shutting off automatically. If any place had ever lived up to the euphemism "comfort station," this was it.

I was intimidated. Let’s face it, I came in here to make at least some kind of a mess. Did I dare even leave a drop of water on the sink counter after washing up? I got the distinct impression that as soon as I opened the door to leave, an employee would rush right in to rearrange the room and return it to its original pristine state, ready to serve the next customer.

At least there wasn’t an attendant in there. Talk about careers that attract no attention at a Job Fair. I can’t help feel sorry for guys who have that job, as if they’ve been punished for losing Hell’s Lottery.

Still, I speak for all men when I say that this whole bathroom attendant concept makes us ill at ease. We don’t want some guy hovering while we drop trou, like a plainclothes cop ready to bust George Michael.

Worse, the attendant always greets you with a "Hi!" or a "How ya doin?" This catches up by surprise because it violates the First Rule Of The Men’s Room: NO TALKING!

Guys want to get in, take care of business, and get out, without any hassles and without speaking a word. I have seen heated conversations between two men come to a complete stop at the door on the way in and then resume once they left, with nary a syllable exchanged in between.

I don’t know if there’s someone serving a similar function in the ladies room, so, as a public service, let me clue the women into what you’re missing.

In addition to his hovering responsibilities, the attendant has a display of carefully arranged toiletries for sale, from a bottle of after-shave to a hairbrush to a bowl of mints (mmm, yummy, men’s room mints!). I’d guess there’s more material sold via the aspirin-and-condom vending machine on the wall than through his countertop display, but he’s still set up to move some merchandise.

Next to it, inevitably, is the tip jar. Normally, you wouldn’t even think of giving the guy any money for patrolling the poop palace. Unfortunately, he has commandeered every paper towel in the place and is holding them hostage like an American spy plane crew that’s crash-landed in China. While you may be able to wash your hands unassisted, you can’t dry them without your pal handing over a two-ply.

Is there a more disturbing level of commerce than this? Aside from being paid to do a bathroom habits survey for the National Association For Continence, I mean.

One last thing to ponder: if all restaurant employees must wash their hands before leaving the bathroom, does that include the guy whose job it is to clean that bathroom? And then, once he cleans up the mess he has just made, does he have to wash again, thus creating a new mess?

Put that in your bowl and flush it.