I found what I think is a fascinating story on the NY Times website. It is hard to describe it so I ask you to read it. If you do, I think you will find it interesting. And if you do read it, I would be interested in your comments.
¶Life in New York City requires the acceptance of a contradictory narrative about what loosely can be called ordinary existence. Even as a native of this city, I struggle to regard the punishment of its costs, the strain of its pace and the futility of its endless competitions — major, minor and residential — as normal.
¶But who’s to say what’s normal? It has been said that the only normal people are the ones we don’t know very well. But I disagree. Normal people, if they can be located outside the playpens of mythology and tall tales, are exactly those we do know, in our families and relationships, by choice or happenstance, or as is so often the case in this impossible city, out of necessity.
¶I thought about that a couple of weeks ago, in a setting abundant with the trappings of normal American life: one of my 5-year-old son J.P.’s peewee baseball games. The field where he plays sits in a little park off Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, on a tree-lined block of brownstones in the shadow of the construction site that will one day be an arena named for a global financial services provider. There is a playground in the park, and on this humid early evening, children scrambled up the jungle gym and ran screaming through the sprinkler. Young men played pickup basketball on the asphalt courts adjacent to the field. Teenage boys capered about on bicycles and skateboards, vying for the approval of the girls on the church stoop across the street. Old men loitered on the park benches, furtively sipping beers camouflaged in paper bags.
He hit, sprinted the bases and high-fived his teammates, then me, then my ex-wife’s girlfriend.
¶Standing at home plate with J.P. (I volunteer as an assistant coach for his team, the Red Dragons), I offered a few (mostly useless) batting tips, made sure that his helmet sat straight on his head and reminded him to have fun. He hit, he sprinted the bases, and eventually, when he reached home, high-fived his teammates, then me, then my ex-wife’s girlfriend, Kathy.
¶We separated about three years ago, and I found out about Kathy a few months later. We had put our apartment up for sale, and I had stopped by to make sure everything was in order before an open house. I noticed that someone had left a phone in the kitchen, and when I picked it up I saw that the wallpaper photo was an image of my son.
¶I was fairly certain the phone was not my ex-wife’s, but to make sure, I called her. The abandoned phone remained silent, and when she answered, I asked if perhaps she owned a second phone. She said no, Kathy — I believe this was the first time I heard her name — had some carpentry skills and had been doing a bit of work and forgot it there. They would stop by later to collect it.
¶There is something disorienting, to say the least, about finding a photograph of your child in the possession of someone you have never met. As a parent, the shock of realizing that your child has a life and experiences and attachments independent of you never completely fades. It’s worse for divorced parents. J.P. has school, friends, his mother, the world he creates when he closes the door to his bedroom and orders me to stay out. Most of the time, though, that alternate existence remains safely theoretical. Confronting it head-on stung.
¶At the same time, the person who took this photo clearly cared about J.P., and for that I was grateful. I also — and this is embarrassing to admit — felt a sense of relief. It would have been worse for me if the unknown figure in J.P.’s life had been male. A man, another possible father, someone with a better jump shot, more adept with a wrench and a power tool, wiser, taller, and more at ease — would have been a greater threat. The photo suggested to me nurturing and affection and the world of motherhood. I understand that what I am describing is sexist and silly and an awful generalization. But it helped, and it still does.
¶(This is in marked contrast to the reactions of some of my friends and family members, who assumed that my ex’s sexual preference could not help but emasculate me, and worried that I might enter some panicked phase of male sexual overcompensation.)
¶J.P. took to the field and Kathy and I stood on the sidelines watching. We chatted amiably about J.P.’s summer camp and his eating habits (he will, apparently, consider a wider range of fruits and vegetables when in her care than in mine or his mother’s); the pleasures and irritations of my ex-wife’s large, loving and contentious Vietnamese family; and whether my ex-wife and Kathy felt pressured to wed now that New York’s marriage laws have been amended to reflect the new, and more just, consensus.
¶When the half-inning ended, J.P. sprinted in from first base, flushed, panting and demanding water. Kathy handed him his water bottle and patted him on the head while he drank.
¶Kathy and I are far from friends, but it’s easier to communicate with her than with my ex-wife, and so, when possible, I include her in the complex and fatiguing logistics of our shared parenting. In that light, our conversation during the game worked as kind of domestic diplomacy, a step along the path to knowing each other, a road that hopefully ends at a new normal.
¶The normal I am thinking of was in evidence on the ball field, too, in a way that I imagine would be hard to find outside of New York. The challenges and obstacles of this city throw people together in ways that encourage the intimacy that results in the ordinary. J.P.’s teammates on the Red Dragons come from families of wide diversity, a cross-section of class, race, income and sexual orientation. To watch them is to see change mingled with tradition, with ease, without judgment. It was the end of summer and children were playing baseball: what could be more normal?
¶Theodore Ross is the author of the forthcoming book “Am I a Jew” and a contributor to the blogDadwagon.