Friday, September 30, 2011

Suburban Family Guy's 2011 MLB Playoff Preview

As I look back at my 2011 MLB Season Preview and prognostications, I actually did okay in choosing four out of the eight playoff teams, which would have been five out of eight if the Red Sox hadn't choked in historical fashion. The Yankees, Rangers, Phillies and Brewers are all heading to the postseason, leaving me a little off on a couple of teams (Giants and Red Sox) and gigantically off for the other (Twins and Dodgers). But what's done is done, and now I'll see if I can look into the proverbial crystal ball for our playoff results.

ALDS: Rays vs. Rangers. The reality is that the Rays haven't played excellent ball in recent weeks, and their ticket into the postseason had more to do with the Red Sox collapse than any sort of torrid streak on their part. The Yankees practically handed them a couple of games in the last series of the season, and the fact that they fell behind in a matchup of Jeremy Hellickson vs. a barely functional Bartolo Colon and 7-0 with David Price on the mound in a must-win game doesn't give me a lot of confidence in their pitching beyond James Shields. The Rangers are much better than advertised, and in addition to an underrated pitching staff and home field advantage, they're mashing the ball. Rangers in three.

ALDS: Tigers vs. Yankees. A lot of Yankee fans shudder at this matchup, and rightfully so. The reality is that this Yankees team is way too similar to the infamous 2004 team which blew a 3-0 lead in the ALCS. If success in the playoffs comes down to starting pitching, the Yankees are in big trouble. The Yankees only "no worries" starting pitcher is going to face off against an MVP candidate and best pitcher of the year in Justin Verlander, and then follow that with an untested rookie with a great record but bad peripheral stats and a Freddy Garcia who barely hits 85 on the radar gun. The Tigers pitching is slightly better, but isn't exactly pressure-tested with Rick Porcello, Max Scherzer and Doug Fister. The Yankees home field advantage means something, and that's enough to give them the edge. Yankees in five.

NLDS: Diamondbacks vs. Brewers. The home-field advantage battle came down to the last game of the regular season, and that matters to a Brewers team which plays much better in Miller Park than on the road. Having the extra home game helps, and a better pitching staff of Yovani Gallardo, Zach Greinke and Shawn Marcum manage to squeak past a strong Diamondbacks team. Brewers in five.

NLDS: Cardinals vs. Phillies. Here's where I go double-contrarian. I've noticed that there are a number of pundits that are picking the Cardinals to beat the heavily-favored Phillies in an upset, and there's merit in those arguments. The Cardinals are the hottest team in the league while the Phillies have struggled, enduring an eight-game losing streak over the last couple of weeks. The Cardinals, because of their fight to the finish to get the wild card, have been playing with playoff intensity for a few weeks now, while the Phillies have been focused more on setting their rotation and getting some of their players healthy. I understand all those points, but my gut still says that the Phillies prevail, more easily than people expect. Phillies in four.

ALCS: Rangers vs. Yankees. Yeah, yeah, I know that the Rangers have a bunch of left handers which are supposedly the Achilles' heel for a left-handed Yankees lineup and I know that the Rangers offense has been smoking hot of late. But the key left-handers in the Yankees lineup like Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson aren't fazed by left-handed pitching. The Rangers can mash, but the Yankees can mash more. Yankees in six.

NLCS: Brewers vs. Phillies. The Phillies have owned the Brewers in the regular season and it doesn't stop in the playoffs. The Brewers ride great playing at home to steal one game, but the better pitching and offense ends up carrying the day. Phillies in five.

World Series: Yankees vs. Phillies. This rematch of the 2009 World Series also matches up two of my favorite teams. The difference is that the Yankees actually had an excellent 2nd starter in Andy Pettitte (well, third starter if you consider that A.J. Burnett was remotely reliable back then) and the Phillies staff was comprised of Cliff Lee, a washed up Pedro Martinez and a totally-gassed-from-2008 Cole Hamels. The Phillies' advantage in starting pitching proves too much for the Yankees bats to overcome, and the Phillies get to celebrate another parade down Broad Street. Phillies in six.

Bonus Musing. As a New Jersey resident and Yankees fan, I share the irritation of many when the Mets blocked the Yankees from using Riverfront Stadium in Newark as a temporary home while their AAA team's stadium is Scranton, PA is being renovated. In a well articulated piece in the Star Ledger, an op-ed blasts the move as petty and hurtful to the city of Newark, the Yankees and ultimately the Mets. Newark and Newark residents clearly could use full stadiums of baseball fans to help drive local commerce, which they will miss out on. Yankees fans in New Jersey would benefit by being able to see future or rehabbing stars without taking out a second mortgage. What exactly the Mets gain? They gain the disrespect and disdain of both the aforementioned groups. News flash to the Mets: The presence of local Yankees minor league baseball isn't what keeps people from being fans of your franchise. It's because your team stinks, and manages to alienate people along the way.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Kids and the 24-Hour Suicide Watch

A few years ago when I was a younger dad of one child, my boss, an older man with two older children remarked to me that until kids reached a certain age, maybe 7 or 8, parents pretty much had to keep their kids under a "24-hour suicide watch". His point was that leaving kids that young unsupervised for a second left the door open for them to do something stupid and harmful to themselves, included but not limited to touching sharp objects, power tools or electrical outlets and eating and/or choking on mothballs, legos or marbles. Of course, this doesn't remotely capture the gamut of ways that young kids can unwittingly get themselves hurt or killed.

I experienced this firsthand this past Sunday when my four-year old daughter inexplicably decided to hop out from her seat in the car and cross the street to throw away some stones she had picked up earlier. Of course, I didn't see this. From my vantage point, I was putting away the baby stroller and I heard the screeching of brakes and my wife screaming bloody murder. Thankfully, a driver who was driving down the street had seen my daughter in time to slam on the brakes, but it was clear that this was a tragedy narrowly averted. My wife and I were simultaneous shaken, furious at my daughter and unspeakably relieved that nothing happened.

It made me mindful of the rest of the conversation that I had with my boss many years ago. Yes, young kids needed to be kept under the "24-hour suicide watch". But the danger doesn't end when the kids celebrate their 8th birthday, or their 12th or 16th for that matter. My boss and I both recollected our own recklessness as adolescents. There were plenty of pyromaniac exercises, impromptu science experiments with flammable and explosive materials, trees and tall heights climbed and other reckless stunts that could have ended as a tragic story in the local section of the newspaper. Those events didn't end that way, obviously. But at some point, you realize that there's a thin line from stupid childhood actions and disaster. Most people can look back at their own experience and acknowledge that they were fortunate.

I think some of this goes back to a previous post I wrote about the stewardship of our children. As difficult as it is, I need to recognize that I have a responsibility to my children to care for them and shepherd them (which might mean admonishing them further not to do stupid things like run across the street), but also recognize that our children are not ultimately our's, but God's (which means that heart-orientation that understands that each and every day with them is precious, and not something that I'm entitled to).

As much as I try to be, I will not always be there to keep her from running across the figurative street. She will grow older, and I will not sitting in the car with her as she considers whether she should drive just a little faster to impress her friends. I may not be with her as she debates at a party whether she should accept and offer of alcohol or drugs. I may not be with her when she's offered a ride home from another person who may or may not be intoxicated. And of course, there are the instances and freak accidents that are not even addressable by any amount of wisdom parents can try to pass along.

So it seems to me that the choice comes down to either being depressed that I can't lock my children in a impregnable box which will shield them from every possible harm. Or I can be obsessed trying to do so (and ultimately despair when I realize it's impossible). Or I can prayerfully do the best I can in equipping my children to make smart choices, and pray that God's providence would shine upon them - and that I would ultimately trust and rest in that same providence spoken about in Jeremiah 29 and Romans 8.

The last options seems most wise, but I acknowledge it's not easy.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Choosing (Your Kids') Friends

There was an interesting article on CNN titled, "When you can't stand your kid's friend", about dealing with situations where your kids have, for lack of a better word, bad friends. It's something that we're dealing with now, as our two older kids are starting to form friendships at school and a desire to interact with certain people and not others. Based upon their personalities and interests, they've been drawn towards some people and not others, and for the most part, we try to respect that and not force close friendships when there's a divergence of interests.

I struggle sometime with the degree I push or don't push. For example, our son can be quite content playing by himself. There are some contexts where a crowd of boys will be running around and playing, and he'll be quite content doing his own project with Legos. Should I encourage him to engage with the activity with the other kids, lest he fall into a pattern of being anti-social? Or do I support and validate that he knows what he likes to do, and there's no need to coerce him to partake in a group activity that he has no interest in?

The same thing can be roll into the types of friends that he has. Should I let him make whatever friends he wants unless the kid isn't blatantly encouraging or modeling disrespectful or destructive behavior? What does exercising proper parenting and good stewardship over my children (per an earlier post) look like? Am I being overly controlling by trying to influence my who my children befriend? I'm inclined to think the other way, that I would I be negligent in not being duly watchful and involved in the same way we ought to control what our children watch on television or eat. After all, there will be a time where they will decide what they make independent adult decisions, and that time isn't now.

At the same time, I'm also hopeful that our kids are the sort of kids that parents embrace and support having our children befriend. While I don't want them to be a pushover for other kids, I encourage them to be thoughtful when they have play dates with others, explaining to them that if their friends have a happy time with them, they're more likely to ask for another playdate. If they're abandoned while you do your own thing, they're probably not going to ask for an encore. We also try to remind our children to be polite and respectful to people when they're at other people's homes.

I suspect that it really comes down to my children's character, and how we nurture their them along the way. If, at the core, my wife and I can cultivate the right characteristics of faith, goodness, kindness, respect and honesty, hopefully that will necessarily influence the kind of people that they choose to befriend, and the kinds of people they don't click with. Culling bad friends is sort of the last line of defense, at seems, and if possible, I'd just as soon equip them to make the right decisions up front in terms of knowing how to stand up for righteousness and turning away from evil.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

9/11 as History

At our church service this past Sunday, our associate pastor noted that while most of us could view the September 11th terrorist attacks as a defining moment in our lives, there was a large number of children in the congregation who saw 9/11 as history. These children were either not old enough to comprehend or remember the events of that day, or weren't born yet to experience first hand what it was like to be transfixed to the television for 24 (or more) hours straight watching real-time updates which were simultaneously terrifying and devastating.

All three of my children were born after 9/11, and my son asked me recently about the significance of the date. He wasn't oblivious to the fact that every time we turned on the television, there was this reference to the event - in addition to every major network, channels such as ESPN were doing special presentations on "How the Sports World Forever Changed with 9/11" and the Food Network had a feature on "Best Recipes of the First Responders". Okay, made the last one up, but you get my drift around how every network seeming had an angle on this.

I answered my son the best that I could, telling him that there were "bad people who hated the United States" who did some terrible things to kill Americans, and they did so by taking over airplanes and flying them into buildings. Of course, he had the usual follow-up questions as most 6 year-olds do, around how they got in the cockpit and why people didn't stop them, and I tried the best that I could to answer those. He seemed satisfied enough by my answer, and went on doing whatever he was doing.

The whole concept of "9/11 as history" is an interesting one. It's intriguing to think how someone who reads and hears around 9/11 processes it differently than someone who lived through it. To use some parallels, I never lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis, but I read about it and learned about it in class. One who actually lived through the crisis may have been understandably far more cynical and nervous about Soviet nuclear proliferation than I would. It's one thing to read about practicing bomb fallout drills at school, but another thing altogether to help your dad build a concrete bomb shelter in your backyard anticipating an attack. But who's the one who's biased, and who is the one with the more rational and correct read of things?

In the same token, I wonder how living through 9/11 will contrast the way my son and I view the world. Will he be less jumpy when he hears a low flying airplane, or perhaps be less inclined to racially profile when he boards an airplane? I remember talking to a Korean friend many years ago who told me that there was a fundamental values clash with the Korean generation who fought and endured the Korean War, and the younger generation that did not. "The younger generation tends to be much more pro-unification, and some even blames the United States for driving a wedge between the countries," he said, "but the older generation who lived through the Korean conflict has a much more cynical and darker view to their countrymen in the north, having experienced their aggression firsthand." The point here isn't who is right and who is wrong, it's just illustrates how experiences color the values of a generation.

My children, thank God, have not had to live through an event as traumatic as 9/11, and I hope they never have to - though I have my doubts that this will come to pass. My hope is that their faith and their character will ultimately be strong enough to absorb whatever soul-marking experiences they may live through, learn and be shaped wisely and thoughtfully, and then keep walking hopefully and faithfully without being entangled in cynicism, apathy, pessimism, fear or hatred.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Merit-Based Redemption

When somebody commits a crime and "does the time", has that person fully paid their debt to society? Should that effectively expunge and record of illegal activity, poor character and bad judgment that individual's slate? That seems to be the argument of Marc Lamont Hill, who laments what he sees as the injustice that Michael Vick - an ex-con who happens to be a supremely gifted athlete - had an opportunity for a redemption worth $100 million over six years, while other ex-cons find themselves permanently branded with a scarlet letter, unable to get the second chance that Vick has seized.

I suppose much of this has to do with one's frame of reference. Is an ex-con who has served time entitled to full restoration, including being viewed without distinction to those who haven't commit crimes? I don't think so. I absolutely am in favor of the rehabilitation of those who make egregious mistakes in the judgment in committing crimes, but to not differentiate them at all with those who have who have not been convicted of a felony seems terribly unfair to those who have opted to conduct themselves lawfully with respect to the rest of society.

For some reason, Hill doesn't seem to think that the distinction of being convicted by a felony as being a big deal or something that might speak to one's character or judgment. He writes:
The task of finding employment in this shaky economy is made infinitely more difficult for former convicts because of the pesky and often unnecessary "Have you ever been convicted of a felony?" question that sits on most job applications. Such a question makes it nearly impossible for a person's slate to be wiped clean after leaving a correctional facility. In addition to employment, former felons are also systematically denied access to public housing, education loans and, in many states, the right to vote. These conditions, which scholar Michelle Alexander refers to as "The New Jim Crow," reduce former felons to permanent second-class citizens
It's almost as if Hill somehow misses the fact that the ex-con had something to do with getting convicted as a felony. There's culpability there, and before I place someone in employment, why wouldn't it be relevant (not "pesky and often unnecessary" in Hill's words) to know that the job applicant formerly held up a liquor store with a semi-automatic handgun, or beat his wife? And to brand ex-cons as "The New Jim Crow" is ridiculous, if not insulting to blacks who suffered under Jim Crow oppression during the Reconstruction era. Blacks had no choice in the color of their skin, criminals made choices to commit crimes.

As for Vick, clearly there's merit-based redemption here, but he's not the only who is the beneficiary of this. Former disgraced junk bond king Michael Milken managed to find great success in his life running a large philanthropy after serving 22 months for securities fraud. Ex-con redemption, like opportunities in the first place, come to those who are immensely talented and resourceful. Right or wrong, the capitalist merit-based system will always find room for a second chance to those who can benefit a team, corporation or cause, regardless of whatever skeletons might be lingering in the closet.

I suppose the sort of "full redemption" that Hill speaks of is available only for those who whose skills and talents are found worthy, at least on this side of glory. From a Christian theological perspective, it's a good thing that salvation and eternal life is a gift from God given by grace. And the beautiful thing is that grace is a gift, offered freely to the spiritual equivalents of Michael Vick as well as the spiritual equivalents of those ex-cons that never seem to get a break.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Surviving Irene

In what was the biggest hurricane event in the tri-state area since Hurricane Gloria in 1985, people all along the Eastern seaboard lived through a tumultuous 72 hour period beginning with the preparation for and ending with the cleanup from and return to normalcy after Hurricane Irene.

Like many families, we did our part to try to get prepared in advance of the storm. With forecasts prognosticating that our region would be hit on Saturday night and Sunday morning, I brought my son to the supermarket on Friday and Saturday and used the event as an educational tool, explaining to him why we were getting jugs of bottled water, canned food and Steno cans. And it dawned upon me that the activity of preparing for the hurricane was actually sort of exciting and fun for my sun. It was akin to the movie Hope and Glory, where a young boy finds the blitz of London during WWII simultaneously terrifying and electrifying. And it was hard not to see the energy and anticipation as we filled the bathtub with water, bottled up extra clean tap water, cleared away loose toys from outside, and locked down our bikes on the porch. We charged up all the electronics and had extra batteries ready, and checked all of our flashlights.

And after we prepared, we waited. And we waited. And we waited some more, to the point that it started to feel like the way you would wait for an upcoming dentist procedure. You know it's coming, you've done all you could to prepare for it, and now you just want to get it over with.

When Irene rolled through Saturday evening, my wife and I sat in the living room watching a DVD waiting for the power to go out as the rain grew progressively harder and the wind blew increasingly stronger. By the time we hit the hay, both of us had trouble sleeping - maybe it was the paranoia that we could be waking up in a couple of feet of water, or the "pre-leaving the house before vacation"-phenomena of mentally agonizing over forgetting something important. By 2am, my wife had found leaks coming from our chimney into our fireplace, and when I woke up early the next morning - even with the sump pumps running every 15-30 seconds and miraculously not losing power - water had seeped into our basement carpet.

As the hurricane itself departed the area, we were able to take stock of our personal impact, and while it wasn't zero, it wasn't bad considering the fate that many of our neighbors and friends in the area endured. Yes, we'll need to get more effective waterproofing done in our basement, and we'll likely tear up the existing carpet and install floors and we did need to deal with not having potable water for a few days. However, we never lost power the amount or endured significant amounts of damage to our house. We lost no basement or kitchen appliances, and most importantly, nobody got hurt.

There are some other positives I drew from the experience. I appreciated how members of our church rallied around each other and look out for each others' needs. There was a great degree of care offered in word and deed as people reported different degrees of impact. I saw similar attitudes among people in our neighborhood. As a family, I thought we did a good job in terms of all pitching in to do our part, which gave further credence to my belief that crisis is fundamentally energizing and exciting for kids. Okay, maybe many of us adults also get energized by crisis, too.

As I look back at our Hurricane Irene experience, I think it was a good wake-up call around everyday things that we take for granted, and assessing our preparedness to live without those things for several days if necessary. Power and clean water are things that almost all Americans can rely upon without fail, but Hurricane Irene provided just a small sample of the reality of life for many in the third world. We ought to be grateful, yes, but there's probably an opportunity to increase our own preparedness.

Beyond that, the power of the hurricane and the powerlessness that we felt in the midst of it is a humbling, yet healthy reminder of our mortality. With all our technological advances, we still very much live under the mercy of a sovereign God, which was abundantly merciful to many of us last week.