Monday, March 2, 2009


I once read that an ancient Japanese proverb says: "The greatest honor for a teacher is to be surpassed by his student."

My son is getting ready to honor the crap out of me.

He's 12, and he's been playing chess off-and-on since he was 9.
However, in the last 6 months or so, he's taken a very keen interest in beating his dear old dad, and he's made no secret about it, either.  He and I play frequently, sometimes 5 or 6 games in one day, plus we play correspondence chess online.
And he's getting better.  Much better.

Flashback - 1971: I'm six years old.  There is a chessboard set up on a small round table in the living room, with two chairs in opposition.  It's always been there, a constant fixture, as familiar and expected as the sofa or the Magnavox console stero.  My father is teaching my brother, who is 9 years old, to play chess.  Concentration and focus are treasured commodities, feircely protected.  The ground rule for kibbitzers (spectators) is singular, crystal clear, and ruthlessly enforced: BE QUIET.  Anything other than stoic, silent stillness results in immediate banishment to another room for the duration of the game (to be followed by a stern lecture).  Eventually, curiosity would get the better of me, and I ask to be taught.  I learned, and lost many games, enough to temporarily crush my desire to continue playing.  My father said he would always play his best and never throw a game, because then I would have a constant by which to measure my skill, and my improvement.  When I realized just how lofty a goal it was, achieving his level of play, I let it go for several years.  When I renewed my interest, it was primarily out of sibling rivalry: I wanted to beat my older brother.  It seemed a more attainable goal than beating Dad.  By the time I was 10, I was playing again, against my dad, my brother, and even occasionally against my mom.  Anything to help me improve enough to beat big brother.  (A task which I still find difficult.)

Always, the game was played quietly, with reverence for the complicated thought processes necessary to plan several moves in advance.  
Anticipate your opponent's reaction to each move you are considering.  Look at every piece.  If you touch a piece, you're committed to moving it.  When you let go, your turn is over, no changing your mind.  If you have to, sit on your hands to avoid the impulse move.  In your mind, you have this bizarre monologue:
"If I move here, he'll move there, then I'll threaten his piece, then he'll protect it with that piece, then I'll capture that piece, he'll capture this piece... then what?"
To oversimplify, the strategy and tactics of chess is an endless repetition of the questions, "What if?" and "Then what?"
The opening is much like lining up dominos of alternating colors.  At some point, they begin falling, and if you've done your job right, when the dust settles, you end up with more pieces still standing than your opponent.

Fast-forward - 2009: Saturday night is family movie night, and we watched "Searching For Bobby Fischer"which, by the way, I wholeheartedly endorse.  Sunday afternoon, and I've drawn my son away from his beloved video games by offering to play chess with him.  After three games where he plays his usual style, the fourth game is different.  He is different.  Something has changed.  He's decided he will play like me (or perhaps like Josh Waitzkin).  He focuses, and he thinks ahead, and he starts to plan.  He hasn't done much pre-planning on a chess board up until now.  His is, as I was at his age, a reactive player.  He responds to the conditions on the board, instead of creating them.  But this is not his usual game.  He has stopped distracting himself.  He is truly studying the board.

He has a knight which is threatening one of my knights.  I could force the trade, but I don't need to, and I want to preserve my piece for later.  My knight is protected by a pawn, so I'm not fearful of losing it.  He usually blunders and loses at least one or two pieces during a game, so even trades generally work to my advantage.  Confident that I'm safe there, I focus elsewhere.  I have a plan, you see.  I'm developing a line of attack on the queen's side of the board, and it's coming along quite nicely, thank you.  I'm wearing him down, slowly but surely, and I have a clear vision of good things to come.
Then it happens.  Back on the king's side of the table, he threatens a bishop with a bishop.  No problem, I'll just advance this pawn to protect my bishop, and go back to working my attack.  Child's play.
I make the move, and look at his face.  He's smirking.  He never smirks.  Uh oh...
He takes only a moment to make sure, then he reaches out and springs the jaws of the trap closed.
With his knight, he captures my knight.  The one I had protected with a pawn.  But I just moved the pawn, without thinking.  I forgot to ask myself, "THEN WHAT?"
In capturing my knight, he "forked" my king and queen.  I was in check from his knight, and my queen was threatened by the same piece, and by moving my pawn moments before, I had nothing with which to capture his knight.  I had to move my king.  He had anticipated my playing style, knowing I tended not to force trades until later in the game.  He had planned ahead, and tricked me.  And he won my queen for his efforts.  
It was brilliant.  It was genius.  (Yes, I'm biased.  He's my son, what did you expect?)

It was also a little embarrassing.

My very first reaction is amazement, and appreciation for a well-executed tactic.  I reach over the board and give my son a high-five.  He beams.  He is happy.  Now, he might just have a chance to beat his dear old dad.  Down a queen, I consider resigning.  I might still have a chance, but he would be so happy with a win.  I could say that the odds against me were too overwhelming.  I could hand him this on a silver platter, and he would deserve it.

Then I remembered what my dad said... "If I always play my best, you'll know how good you are by how close you get to beating me."  I had to carry on, for his sake.  I had to set the example.  I had to show him that it's possible to dust yourself off, pick up the sword and battle on.

I rejoined the fray.  We battled fiercely back and forth.  Capturing, protecting, maneuvering, calculating, pondering, sacrificing, it was all there.  It had everything you might want in a chess game, and the challenges on both sides of the board went on and on, until the very last move.
When the dust settled, there were two kings on the board... and NOTHING ELSE.


I had overcome the loss of my queen, and prevented him from parlaying it into a sheer massacre.  He had taken his dad to a draw for the third time in his young chess career.
Much more than that, he learned a few valuable lessons about focus and tenacity.
And I learned that my day of reckoning is growing closer with every beat of the drum.
I will fight it off with all my might, but it will come, and nobody will be prouder on that day than I.

Except, possibly, his Grandfather.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Articles of Interest

So I recently read two articles which REALLY caught my eye, and I wanted to share them with the world...

This is from Jules Carlysle, a Canadian author with a keen eye and sharp tongue, who has taken our recently-retired President Bush to task many times (and America for twice electing him!).
She writes about her impressions of our recently-HIRED President Obama.

This is from Mitch Albom, a Detroit sports columnist who's achieved a fair bit of fame writing books and movies... and still writes about Detroit sports.  It's a bit longer of a read, at 3 pages (on the web, that's a long read), but it's VERY MUCH worth it.


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Reflections on the Jonas Brothers... and getting old.

Kevin, Joe, & Nick.  
They seem to consume an inordinate amount of my daughter's attention.  There are many, many posters of these boys on her bedroom walls.  "Pop Sensation" doesn't begin to adequately convey their popularity with "tweens".  (For the uninitiated, a "tween" is a youth between middle childhood and adolescence, approximately 8-12 years old, usually referring to a girl.)  The Jonas Brothers are the latest incarnation of the spirit of John, Paul, George, & Ringo.  They are her generation's version of the Osmonds or the Jackson Five, and they have been produced and packaged with all the impressive slickness that the Disney machine can muster.  That machine has spent a lot of coin on perfecting the product, and I can only believe they are now reaping in the ol' Return-On-Investment at a staggering pace.  Sound like envy?  Maybe, a little.  But that's a whole 'nother story for a whole 'nother day.
On the occasion of my daughter's 10th birthday, I purchased two tickets to the Jonas Brothers concert, one for her and one for me.  I thought it would be a great opportunity to show her that her dad has a few ounces of cool, even if it was buried under pounds of lame.  Parents are never cool, I got that a long time ago.  I know that no matter how much I try, my kids will never think I'm cool.  They may love me, respect me, and if I'm really lucky (and careful), they may even admire me.  But I've never been under the misguided assumption that they tell all their friends that they learned about the latest fads, fashions, and lingo from their DAD.  Parents are lame (or square, or out-of-it), with just an occasional glimpse of cool.  
So, I'm reaching for the glimpse here.  Tickets.  Parking.  Showtime.  A VERY long line, just to get into the sold-out arena an hour before kickoff.  Souvenir T-shirt & concert program, and a long walk up to the nosebleed section.  Opening act, (disappointment that the headliners weren't first), and a brief intermission.  Then comes... the second opening act, along with a little more disappointment that it's not THEM.  "Dad, when are THEY coming on?"  "Soon, sweetie.  Just be patient."  Another intermission.  Then, one hour and eighteen minutes after the show began, the SHOW began.

Here's where it gets interesting.

I'm a pragmatist.  I'm also starting to lose my hearing.  I brought earplugs.  Smartest move of the evening.  I don't care if it detracted from my cool-factor.  I was putting the second one in when 20,000 girls started screaming.  My eardrum caught just a hint of the onslaught, so I knew very well the bullet I was dodging when the foam expanded in my right ear canal a moment later.
For the record, I've never used earplugs for a concert before, and I might never again.  I've yelled myself hoarse in arenas with Billy Joel, Elton John, Supertramp, Def Leppard (tell me there's no poetic irony there!), and even Harpo's with my cousin's death-metal band.  (Sorry, Brian, if it's not technically death-metal.  I'm too old to know the diff...)
I have, however, also heard what a few hundred inspired female teenage sets of vocal cords can do, and I assumed, correctly so, that a few thousand could very well cost me more that the ticket price would ever buy back.  Thus, earplugs.
The SHOW starts.  The lights go off, pitch black.  The stage is bathed in a dim purple glow.  The Jonas Brothers logo, a shield with the letters 'JB' inside it, is suspended over the stage, shaped in metal tubes with small holes all over it.  It ignites, first at the bottom, then the flame spreads along the lengths of tubing.

Their logo is on fire.  

It's also on 6 immense projection screens strategically located around the arena.
JB, spelled out in flames.  (This is, after all, the "Burnin' Up" tour.)
Wow.  The adult in my head says "That is SO hokey.  Too cliché, too gauche."
The kid in me says "Man, you are so lame.  That's not cliché, that's COOL!"
My inner child may have forgotten how to appreciate the noise level, but he knows that a flaming logo in a pitch-dark, sold-out arena quite simply ROCKS!
The Jonas Brothers are a family-friendly boy-band, comprised of three actual brothers, ages 16 through 21, each clean-cut and sanitized for your protection.  They've taken vows of purity, and they wear purity rings to symbolize their inability to let their hormones make their bad decisions for them.  I'm not sure (yet) who writes their music, but it's not bad.  It's not the best I've heard, but it's not the worst, either.  "Catchy, toe-tapping tunes" would be my best description, but music, like all art, is subjective.  They seem musically capable.  No wondrous displays of prodigious technical skills, but they didn't mess up either.  No, their real talent lies in knowing, and playing to, their audience.  Minor feats of acrobatics, batting their eyelashes, and making lots of eye-contact, especially during the slow love-songs.  Oh yeah, these girls were putty in their hands.  On two separate occasions, they even pulled a front-row girl up on stage to sing along with them, providing a wonderful memory of emotional nirvana to two lucky girls, and a basketful of envy to the rest.
So the nicest feature of expanding-foam earplugs is that you can still carry on a conversation in the middle of a screaming, singing audience.  You can also hear conversations being held in the row behind you, even if the words aren't meant for your ears.  Immediately after sharing his microphone, his stage, and his third chorus with one of the girl-guests, Kevin Jonas hugged her and kissed her on the forehead before returning her to her happy parent (who must have been happily reconsidering THEIR ticket-price's return-on-investment).  No sooner was that image flashed on the big-screen, than I heard a voice behind me yell, "OH MY GOD, Brittany, did you SEE that?  MY FUTURE HUSBAND just KISSED another GIRL!"

So where is all this rambling going?  (Hint: The short answer is "nowhere".)

I'm 43, and I'm amazed that one pop-rock concert can make me feel simultaneously old and young, happy and sad.
Old, because it's clear that I'm NOT the target demographic of what Joni Mitchell called "the star-maker machinery of the popular song".
Young, because I wanted to buy the new Jonas Brothers CD and start tapping my toes.
Sad, because my daughter is getting older, and so am I.  She'll always be my girl, but she'll never be my baby girl again.
Happy, because Daddy's girl didn't come down off her cloud for days.  She'll never forget her first rock concert.

Neither will I.