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The door closed behind me as I entered the manager’s office in Kauffman Stadium’s visiting clubhouse. I introduced myself to Terry Francona as we shook hands. It wasn’t uncommon for me to interview accomplished baseball men, so I wasn’t nervous about talking with Francona, the two-time World Series-winning skipper of the Boston Red Sox. However, I was excited; I’d always enjoyed Francona’s interviews over the years and I’d heard he was an outstanding guest. My first question to Francona was a little long-winded. No, it was very long-winded. Something about the Red Sox struggles early in the year, the fact Boston has played a lot better since, but they still have the Yankees to contend with for the division, although they could still win the wild card even if they don’t win the division. It took me about 30 seconds to get all of that out and, while I was talking, my brain was telling my mouth to shut up, but my mouth wasn’t responding.

When I was done with my first question, I pointed my digital recorder toward Francona. He looked at me through his wire-rimmed glasses.

“Well, that was a mouthful!” Francona said.

And my interview was off to a terrible start. I was flustered and neither Francona nor I could get past my opening salvo. The rest of my questions – while shorter – were mediocre, as were Francona’s responses. The Red Sox media relations rep told me I had 3-4 minutes to interview the manager and, when I’d gotten through about 3 ½ minutes of misery, Francona gave me the “wrap it up” sign with his right index finger, which threw me off even further and led to another terrible question and another subpar answer. After we were done, I thanked Francona, who seemed annoyed. I couldn’t blame him; I did a terrible job.

Even though interviewing is an important part of sports broadcasting, very little time is spent on properly teaching and honing necessary interview skills. Very few people in sports broadcasting are hired based on their interview skills; the sound of one’s play-by-play or the strength of one’s sports-talk radio opinions take precedence. I was never asked or quizzed on my interview skills when I got my first broadcasting jobs; those doing the hiring assumed I’d be able to be an effective interviewer. Although you may not get a job because of your ability to interview and ask good questions, not doing both well could make it difficult to keep or establish credibility with the coaches and athletes you cover.

The most important thing I try to remember when conducting interviews for broadcast is people want to hear from my interviewee and not from me. As a result, my questions should be succinct and to the point. One of my pet peeves is media members who ask long questions, like I did in my first question with Francona. Long-winded questions are the result of a questioner trying to show how smart he or she is and/or not having a fully-formed question or idea when he or she starts talking (in the above example with Francona, I was guilty of both).

An interviewer should try not to ask yes-or-no questions, but sometimes that will happen even if you’re trying to prevent it. However, that’s where asking good follow-up questions comes into play. I’ve seen too many media members get a “yes” or a “no” to their question and not follow up; just because you got a “yes” or a “no” doesn’t mean the interviewee has no desire to elaborate. Sometimes, succinct questions lead to succinct answers, but that’s where follow-up questions come into play. It doesn’t mean you have to turn into Jack Bauer interrogating a terrorist, but good follow-up questions are essential for a good interview. And, if you pay attention, the interviewee will let you know how much he or she is willing to say.

That’s another key to a good interview – paying attention. Most media members go into an interview with an idea of questions to ask. Some write those questions down, others don’t – I jot down notes for a few questions for a little more than half of the interviews I conduct. However, the interviewee may bring up something in one of his or her answers that is worthy of exploration and further elaboration. I go into every interview with a plan, but I’m not afraid to deviate from that plan if circumstances indicate I should. Part of my problem in my interview with Francona was I tried too hard to ask him most of what I wanted to ask in the first question, rather than opening with simple, concise questions and letting Francona’s responses guide subsequent questions.

You may be wondering, if I’m aware of these interview rules, how did I mess up my interview with Francona? Even the best interviewers (and I’m far from one of the best) screw up the basics sometimes, which is why it’s important to remind ourselves of those tenets. My debacle with Francona also underscores the need to listen to ourselves, the need to be self-critical and self-correcting. The best broadcasters I’ve dealt with know they’re good, but also know they’re fallible, and they look to correct mistakes or tighten up their performance at every opportunity. One of the reasons I love working with and listening to younger and less experienced broadcasters is it forces me to go back to basics; critiquing their work and reinforcing or introducing elementary concepts to them reminds me of those concepts as well.

More than anything, keep interviewing simple. Or else, Terry Francona will think you’re an idiot.

The most important thing for a play-by-play broadcaster’s development is reps; one needs to call games in order to get better at calling games. But, listening is also important – listening to yourself, listening to others and getting decision makers and/or more experienced broadcasters to provide constructive feedback after listening to you. Without those three types of listening, it’s impossible for a play-by-play broadcaster to get better or to know if he or she is headed in the right direction. All three types of listening have been crucial in my development as a play-by-play broadcaster.

*          *          *

The first time I called baseball play-by-play on the radio was in Pasco, Washington – the season opener between my team, the Yakima Bears, and the Tri-City Dust Devils. I’d never done a pre-game show on my own and I’d never thought about how to put one together, making my 15-minute pre-game a challenge. I did very little research on the Bears players and no research on the Dust Devils players, so I had little to talk about during lulls in the action. When there was action, my calls were pedestrian at best, horrendous at worst. In short, I was awful.

After the game, I started thinking. Should I listen back to my first broadcast? I wondered. Maybe I could learn something. When I was in college, veteran broadcasters spoke to me and my classmates about the importance of listening to our own broadcasts, so didn’t I need to start after my first game? I never did listen to my first baseball broadcast; as it turned out, I screwed up my recording of the game – of course I did! – so I couldn’t listen even if I wanted to.

Eventually, I figured out how to archive my game broadcasts on my Minidisc recorder, but I was two weeks into my first season before I listened to one of my broadcasts. It was a game at Everett, Washington that ended when the Bears leftfielder dropped a fly ball with two outs in the ninth inning, allowing the winning run to score. I thought my call of the game was very good, particularly my call of the final play. And, on the 20-minute bus ride from the Everett ballpark to the hotel, I listened to myself through my headphones. My initial assessment of my call was accurate; I sounded really good, even upon further review. However, I noticed a few things I didn’t like about my call and I made mental notes on the improvements I needed to make. After the brief listening session, I felt pretty good about my play-by-play and was excited about my next broadcast, when I’d get to implement some of the changes I wanted to make.

That exercise led to me creating a policy to which I still adhere – I only listen to my play-by-play after what I feel is a very good broadcast. When I’ve listened to games I’ve done that I didn’t think were very good, I’ve wound up picking apart my call even more and feeling uninspired about my work. But, listening to games in which I felt my call was good energizes me even while I recognize there’s room for improvement.

*          *          *

I love long-distance drives on Saturday afternoons during the fall and winter, because they give me a chance to listen to basketball and/or football play-by-play. On this particular Saturday in December, I was in the middle of a three-hour drive to call a basketball game when my radio dial settled on the broadcast of a Division I basketball game. The play-by-play broadcaster was decent; he painted the picture pretty well and gave the time and score often. However, he kept referring to his team by their nickname, a nickname I didn’t immediately identify with a particular school. I listened to nearly a quarter of the game broadcast before I heard the school’s name.

I immediately thought of my own basketball broadcasts; at the time, I was calling games for the University of Nebraska Omaha. Do I say the school’s name and nickname enough? I thought. Do I make it clear that “Nebraska Omaha” and “Mavericks” are one in the same? From that point forward, I made more of an effort to interchange the school name and nickname of both teams as often as possible, occasionally using both together. The broadcaster I was listening to may have figured the majority of his listeners are fans of his school and didn’t need to hear the school’s name repeatedly. However, I’ve always believed it’s important to make my broadcasts accessible to as many listeners as possible without dumbing down the broadcast to the point where diehard fans would be offended. And, I didn’t think making it clear that “Nebraska Omaha” and “Mavericks” or “IUPUI” and “Jaguars” or “Kansas City” and “Kangaroos” were interchangeable would insult my core audience.

Too often, play-by-play broadcasters think they can only learn from the best broadcasters and, if they’re listening to a broadcast by someone they deem inferior, they just tear it apart without breaking down the call critically. However, lessons can be learned even from the worst broadcasters. Mind you, the Division I broadcaster I’m referring to was far from horrible – he was quite good, actually – but I was able to learn from something he did that I thought sounded awkward. There are broadcasters I don’t particularly care for who are good at certain facets of play-by-play that I try to emulate. A play-by-play broadcaster can learn something from every game broadcast he or she listens to, whether it’s what to do or what not to do; the latter is just as important as the former.

*          *          *

I don’t remember how Liana wound up with a free night at a hotel – was is for opening a new bank account? Anyhow, because I had a basketball game to call on Valentine’s Day, we decided to celebrate the holiday the following week by spending a couple of days in Syracuse, New York; I’d never taken Liana to the city where I earned my college degree, Syracuse was only an hour away and it was a trip that was within our modest budget. We’d just checked into our hotel when my cellphone rang. I didn’t recognize the number, but I answered anyway. To my surprise, it was the Director of Broadcasting for a National League team. He wanted to talk to me about the demo CD I’d sent him.

A couple of months prior, I sent a CD with clips of my baseball play-by-play to nearly all of the 30 Major League Baseball teams, hoping to get some feedback on my work. The few teams I’d heard from hadn’t told me much, if anything, about my play-by-play skills. So, I listened intently as the gentleman on the other end told me I needed to be more descriptive (“this isn’t television,” he reminded me). I kept probing him for more information; what else did you notice? I asked. The Director of Broadcasting was firm, but friendly, and he was happy to answer any questions I had. We talked for about an hour. At the end, he told me I was headed in the right direction and that, with more experience, I’d have a shot at a broadcasting position in the Major Leagues. He also encouraged me to keep in touch and to keep sending him my demos. After that conversation, I was a much better broadcaster. I also realized Liana must love me to put up with me spending an hour of our romantic getaway on the phone.

Of the three types of listening, getting constructive feedback is the hardest to accomplish. Most who listen to a play-by-play broadcaster will either tell that broadcaster he or she is great or that he or she is awful, if they tell him or her anything at all. That’s why it’s important to cast a wide net; when I was a minor league baseball broadcaster I contacted the Director of Broadcasting for several Major League Baseball teams and two gave me constructive feedback (another National League team’s Director of Broadcasting emailed me with useful feedback and we later spoke over the phone). It’s crucial to keep seeking constructive feedback until you get it. And, once you find people willing to help you, don’t be afraid to ask them to listen to more of your work down the road as you continue to get better.

Will My Daughter…?

Will my daughter know what a dial tone is? Will she know what it’s like to hear a busy signal? Will she know what it sounds like when a landline phone rings? Will she ever have to write down a message and will I ever have to explain to her how to answer the phone when she’s home alone in such a way that strangers won’t know her parents’ whereabouts?

Will my daughter know what a record is? Will she ever be scolded for running or jumping near the record player, thus making the record skip? Will she even know what a record skip is? Will she ever listen to the radio for hours, hoping to hear her favorite song a few more times? Will she know what it’s like to fast forward or rewind a cassette, just to hear that one song she really likes?

Will my daughter know what it’s like to wait until the summer to catch the television episodes that she missed? Will she watch her favorite movie over and over again, until the VHS tape wears out? Will she experience looking forward to Saturday mornings, because that’s when all of the cartoons come on? Will she know what it’s like to manipulate the television antenna in order to receive one of the seven available channels clearly?

Will my daughter learn how to sign her name? Will her third-grade teacher force her class to write in cursive, spending copious hours on the proper way to write a script Q or a script Z? Will she know what it’s like to write in longhand until her right hand starts to hurt? Will she ever have to rewrite a one- or two-page essay by hand because of one or two mistakes or misspellings? Will she ever use a manual pencil sharpener? Will she and her classmates have to share the one computer sitting in the back of the classroom? Will she ever use correction fluid?

Will my daughter ever look something up in a hardcover encyclopedia? Will she spend countless hours sifting through books in the library trying to find that one piece of information that’s vital to her class project? Will she know what a card catalog or what the Dewey Decimal System is? Will she keep returning to the library to look things up in one of the reference books they won’t allow her to take home?

Will my daughter hurt herself on a seesaw or a metal swing? Will she hang from the top of the monkey bars, knowing any false moves could lead to broken limbs? Will she skin her knees on the playground’s uneven concrete? Will she ever ride a bicycle or ride roller skates without a helmet? Will she ever play a pickup game organized by she and her peers and without adult supervision?

Will my daughter get four quarters from a relative and think she’s wealthy beyond belief? Will she know what penny candy is? Will she be able to go to the store on her own, without being driven by an adult? Will she and her friends be shooed away from the store’s pay phone because they’re making prank calls?

My daughter will learn the importance of a good, solid handshake and the importance of looking people in the eye. She will know the importance of speaking up and the importance of having her voice heard. She will be taught to say “please” and “thank you” and “no thank you” at the appropriate times. She will learn to respect her elders, teachers and coaches, even when she disagrees with them. She will be allowed to settle her playground and schoolyard disputes on her own whenever possible. She will know that education is important and that her schoolwork comes first. She will have the value of reading impressed upon her. She will be encouraged to be acutely aware of her surroundings and to try and walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. She will learn the importance of sharing and of valuing her fellow man and woman. She will be taught not to always judge a book by its cover. She will be forced to push herself intellectually and spiritually. She will be educated about serious issues like sex and drugs at the appropriate times and without words being minced. She will have several adult role models who will push and encourage her.

In many ways, my daughter’s childhood will be much different from mine. But, my hope is that her childhood will mirror mine in the most important ways.

Hired To Be Fired

I’ll never forget when I knew Trey Hillman was about to be fired. I was sitting next to him on the dais in the media interview room in the bowels of Kauffman Stadium.  In my role as the Kansas City Royals reporter for their flagship radio station, I got to ask Hillman, the Royals manager, the first three questions during his post-game press conference before heading upstairs to host my Royals post-game call-in show. The Royals had lost another game in which they struggled to score runs and their bullpen imploded and I asked Hillman what could be done to fix the struggling offense.

“You start to think about squeezing in the first inning,” Hillman said.

Things had gotten so bad, the Royals manager was talking about bunting in a run in the early innings, which almost never happens; even the most offensively-challenged or small ball-oriented teams don’t squeeze bunt that early. And, bunting early won’t get a team out of its offensive doldrums; if your team has the talent to score runs, it eventually will; if it doesn’t, it won’t. There isn’t a managerial strategy that can alter how many runs an offense scores to a significant degree. This is a man, I thought to myself, who has run out of ideas. It wasn’t long before Hillman was fired.

When you’ve covered sports long enough, it’s not hard to figure out when a manager or head coach is on the verge of resigning or being let go. Sometimes, the giveaway is the badmouthing of the leader by his players. Other times, it’s the lack of respect or attention the coach/manager gets from his superiors. But, the surest sign is public statements like Hillman’s, when it’s clear the coach or manager has no idea how to get his team out of their morass. I saw something similar over the last few months, when Kansas City Chiefs head coach Romeo Crennel was clearly a dead man walking. In his press conferences after games and during the week, Crennel didn’t seem to have many answers as to why the Chiefs, picked by many to contend in the AFC West, were on their way to a 2-14 season and the first overall pick in the NFL Draft. Crennel tried to shake things up by firing himself as defensive coordinator, by indicating that players who turned the ball over would sit out for at least a handful of plays and by making a quarterback change. None of those moves worked, mainly because the Chiefs’ problems were so embedded, they weren’t going to be fixed with a few in-season changes. The day after the season ended, the Chiefs announced that Crennel was given his walking papers.

The unfortunate thing for managers and head coaches is that, generally, they’re pawns and the problems with their roster are often out of their control. There wasn’t much Hillman could do with a roster filled with young players who weren’t ready to contribute and/or didn’t belong in the Majors, over-the-hill players and dead-end veterans. At the time, we knew the Royals were a year or two away from having talented young players from their farm system ready to help, but it seemed Hillman had already lost his way and wasn’t worth keeping around for the impending youth movement. In Crennel’s case, what was seen as a talented roster wasn’t as talented as initially thought and there was little depth. Also, Crennel had a very young team that had little-to-no experience with winning at the professional level and terrible quarterback play in a league dominated by teams with excellent quarterback play. Most Chiefs fans knew Crennel was hamstrung and, as a result, directed the majority of their ire toward general manager Scott Pioli, with whom the Chiefs also parted ways.

When a team is struggling or not playing as well as some expected, fans and media are always looking for signs that a manager or head coach is on his way out. Fans often focus on in-game coaching decisions, but rarely do those indicate anything about a manager’s fate either way. Sure, some managers or coaches are more aggressive when they think they’re on the hot seat, but some will become more conservative, playing it close to the vest in an effort to avoid making waves. And, in my experience, players don’t react to game-to-game coaching decisions in the same way fans do; when players don’t win, they’re more likely to put the blame on themselves. Of course, players will notice egregious mistakes or miscalculations in strategy but, even then, they’re more likely to blame the poor results on their poor execution. That’s especially true in baseball, where there are games every day and relatively little time is spent dissecting each an every maneuver.

Media often focus on what’s going on in the locker room or clubhouse as a way of taking the temperature of a team. But, many times, that approach bears little fruit. Off-the-record comments from players and assistant coaches are the most revealing but, on the record, there usually is very little that indicates a team’s dissatisfaction with their boss. And, even if a team doesn’t like their manager or head coach, it doesn’t always mean a manager or head coach is in trouble. Likewise, a coach or manager who is liked by the players isn’t always safe. When he led the Royals, players often chafed at Hillman’s managerial style. There seemed to be a feeling that Hillman – who had never played, coached or managed in the Major Leagues before the Royals hired him – was out to prove he knew more about baseball than anyone else. One player even told me – off the record, of course – that Hillman’s first name was Trey because he thought he was three times smarter than everyone else. A strong argument could be made that Hillman never had control of the clubhouse or the respect of the players. On the other hand, the Chiefs players seemed to love Crennel; he had an avuncular way about him and was a hard guy to dislike. Even when the Chiefs were at their worst and Crennel was at his wits end with the media or with his players, it was hard not to feel sorry for Crennel. On the flipside, I don’t ever remember media feeling sorry for Hillman, even though he was dealt a bad hand. Crennel never had success as an NFL head coach and he clearly was out of ideas when it came to trying to fix what was wrong with the Chiefs, but most of his players seemed to like and respect him.

So, how are those who cover a team – and even some media who don’t cover a team – able to figure out when a coach or manager’s time is almost up? Some of it is simply intuition and an understanding of history. But, much of it is parsing what the coach/manager is saying, or not saying, to the media. Coaches who seem to be out of ideas and/or look or act defeated on a regular basis are usually taken out of their misery sooner rather than later.

I go through stages where I only listen to a specific music genre or musical artist for a few days. During this particular period, I was listening to a lot of old-school rap from the late 1980s and early 1990s. One of my favorite groups from that era is A Tribe Called Quest, a trio of rappers from Queens, New York who were adept at combining sounds unique to rap with superb wordplay. At the moment, “Can I Kick It?”, a Tribe song held in place by guitar chords borrowed from Lou Reed’s classic rock hit “Walk on the Wild Side”, was playing. In the song’s chorus, Tribe asks “Can I kick it?”, with the audience responding “Yes you can!” over and over again.

Then it hit me. I can use that.

I was in the middle of my first – and, as it turned out, only – season as the radio voice of The College of St. Rose men’s and women’s basketball teams. St. Rose’s women’s team had a two-guard whose primary job was to come off the bench and fire three-point shots. Like most long-range shooters, it was apparent within one or two shot attempts whether she was hot or cold. And, when she was hot, even the rare threes that missed looked like they were going in. One night, she came in and hit her first two threes and I knew she was on. So, when her next three went up, I saw my opportunity.

“Can she hit it?” I asked my listeners and the basketball floated through the air.

“Yes she can!” I exclaimed as the ball snapped through the bottom of the net with ruthless precision.

And, just like that, I’d come up with another way to describe a three-point shot.

Catchphrases in broadcasting can be a dangerous thing. Often, for something to truly become a catchphrase, a broadcaster has to use it over and over again in the same situation, which can become paralyzing and a threat to a broadcaster’s creativity. I see “Can he/she hit it…Yes he/she can!” more as an option than a catchphrase because I don’t use it on every three-point shot attempt; I don’t think I’ve ever used it more than once in a game broadcast and I’ll often go several games without using it at all. I feel that something like “Can he/she hit it…Yes he/she can!” has to be used sparingly, if at all. And, it works well only if the shot goes in; “Can he/she hit it…Nope” doesn’t have the same ring to it.

When I got my first play-by-play job, calling minor league baseball, I had six months to prepare before I called my first game. A good portion of that six months was spent trying to come up with a catchphrase for home runs. Every baseball broadcaster has a home run catchphrase, I thought, so I should too. I finally settled on “Forget it!”; I can emphasize the “r” even more on bigger home runs, I thought to myself. I spent countless hours going over that home run call in my head and aloud.

Then, the season started. And, I barely used the home run catchphrase I’d spent months perfecting. There were two main reasons for that. For one, I was overwhelmed, particularly at the start of the season, and I focused more energy on getting the nuts and bolts of baseball play-by-play correct and less on catchphrases. And, I realized my best calls – of home runs or of anything else – came when I just reacted and described what I saw. Play-by-play is hard enough, I reasoned, and I don’t need to make it even harder by trying to force specific catchphrases or expressions into my vernacular.

Even though I don’t focus on catchphrases in my play-by-play, I still spend a lot of time trying to come up with different words and phrases I can use on the air, but I do that as a way of preventing my play-by-play description from becoming stale. For example, last month I realized I was using “puts up” too often when describing an outside shot attempt (e.g. “Phillips puts up a three”). So, I focused on using other words to describe the act of shooting a jumper, paying close attention to the words used by other broadcasters when they described similar plays. It didn’t take me long to reduce my penchant for “puts up”.

However, some words and phrases work well, even if they’re repeated over and over. Perhaps the best example of that is NBA broadcaster Marv Albert’s “Yes!” call after made jump shots. Albert says “Yes!” after a healthy portion of successful outside shots in almost every game he’s done for at least the last four decades. However, it works for Albert because it’s simple and he varies the “Yes!” based on the importance and/or difficulty of the shot; Albert’s “Yes!” is more emphatic after a game-winner than it is after a first-quarter make. And, it never sounds like Albert is forcing “Yes!” into his call. Albert says he came up with “Yes!” as a youngster, when he heard a referee say “Yes, and it counts!” after a player made a basket despite being fouled and he and his friends started using “Yes!” in their own pickup basketball games. A broadcaster never knows when inspiration will strike.

Whenever an inexperienced or aspiring play-by-play broadcaster asks me about catchphrases and signature calls, I always tell him or her not to worry about coming up with any; let it happen organically. Instead, the focus should be on economy of words and on being able to describe the same plays in myriad ways. As broadcasters get more experience, their personality will emerge, and so will their style and any pet phrases; trying to force a style or catchphrases into play-by-play usually sounds contrived and inauthentic. I also tell broadcasters you never know when or where your favorite words or phrases will emerge. Maybe you’ll have some old-school rappers to thank.

Protection

The moment a child is born, his or her parents learn the importance of being careful and the importance of protection. A newborn can’t hold its head up, so you must pay close attention to that head the first few months. You’re not supposed to put an infant to sleep on its stomach, we’re told, or death is more likely. In New York State, when my daughter was born, my now-wife and I were required to watch a 20-minute video warning of the dangers of Shaken Baby Syndrome, a video so sad and so graphic that I’m amazed I still have the wherewithal to shake a carton of orange juice.

Before I became a father, I used to hear parents say they look at tragedies involving children differently once they had kids. After learning about the shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut on Friday, I understand what those parents meant. I was literally sick to my stomach as I found out the details and, when President Barack Obama spoke about the shooting that afternoon while trying to stay composed, a tear rolled down my right cheek. Friday’s shootings brought out a lot of emotions in me and in many others. More than anything, we wanted to know what we could do to better protect our children. Not surprisingly, many focused on gun control and whether the incident in Newtown would finally lead to meaningful changes in our gun laws that would restrict ownership of certain firearms. I tend to be in favor of more gun control than we have now, but Friday’s shootings helped remind me how helpless I feel sometimes as a parent, a feeling that wouldn’t go away even if every gun on this earth were destroyed. Despite my best efforts to protect my daughter, there’s still a chance she could be harmed.

I think back to my own childhood and Mom’s insistence that I know my address, in case I got lost and/or needed to deal with the police. I was part of the first generation of children to be comprehensively educated about the dangers of drugs and the dangers of adults who may look to inflict irreparable damage on us mentally and physically. Mom loves to tell the story of she and Dad intentionally hiding from me in a busy part of Lincoln Center in New York City when I was a toddler, whereupon I freaked out because I thought I’d lost my parents forever. After that incident, I never strayed too far from her or Dad again, Mom says, which was their goal. My parents weren’t much different from most other parents, working hard to prevent me from being victimized by those who don’t have my best interests at heart. Thanks to my parents, I had a happy and healthy childhood free of serious trauma. I was able to be a kid.

Isn’t that what we ultimately want for our children, the chance for them to be kids without facing the stress or the difficulties adults face? Some of my fondest days with my 2 ½-year-old daughter are when she’s amused by the simplest pleasures, like building “skyscrapers” with her Legos or role-playing with her stuffed animals. It cracks me up whenever she gets excited at the prospect of eating Chicken McNuggets, her favorite, jumping up and down and yelling “Chicken Nuggets!” to the amusement of other McDonald’s patrons. My face lights up when I see my daughter bouncing in her car seat because I’ve pulled up at her favorite playground and she can’t wait to be unbuckled so she can go down the slide and soar in the swing.

Those kids who were at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown during the shooting may still continue to enjoy many of their favorite activities, but a part of their innocence is gone, their childhood changed forever. They now know what it’s like when a fire drill isn’t just a fire drill. Many of them now know what real gunfire sounds like, and some of them will always associate that sound with death. Those kids will grow up knowing that kids in their school were killed for no reason whatsoever and that, if things had turned out differently, they could’ve been killed too. Heck, I grew up in the big and bad Bronx and I didn’t know of any kids who were shot and killed when I was their age. Those kids will have a new principal soon, and they’ll know it wasn’t because their old principal retired or left for another school. They won’t, like most kids, automatically assume their school is safe or assume that every adult who enters their school can be trusted. The parents of the kids who survived will hug their kids tighter and be more protective than usual, at least for a little while, and the kids won’t understand why. Other than taking their life, the worst thing you can do to children is take away their innocence.

My daughter usually doesn’t mind holding my hand but, sometimes, she wants to break free and run or walk on her own. Sometimes, I allow her to let go but, most of the time, I wind up scolding her, because she wants to run free in a parking lot or on a busy street. You never let go of Daddy’s hand when cars are around, I explain to her. I’m not sure she understands. I will hold her hand until she knows to look both ways when crossing the street, until she knows to always follow traffic signals, until she knows to always be on the lookout for cars in parking lots and on narrow streets without sidewalks. And, even then, that may not be enough.

Writing Well

Most of my memories of first grade are a blur of sour milk, writing in black and white composition books – at some point we switched from writing on two lines to writing on one line – and going up and down the stairs. However, there are two days in first grade that I remember vividly. One is the day of the Challenger space shuttle disaster; we were watching that live on the brown television that was wheeled into our classroom whenever there was a shuttle launch. The other day I remember was when we learned the difference between the words they’re, their and there. Mrs. Hines went over the rules for when to use each word on the green chalkboard. She then gave us examples of sentences with the proper usage of each word before assigning homework that required us to come up with our own sentences using their, they’re and there. I eagerly did my homework that night and was pleased when, the next day, I learned that I’d gotten every sentence correct.

In the 26 years since I learned the difference between they’re, their and there, I can count the number of times I confused one for another on one hand, and still have several fingers remaining. I’m still not sure why that lesson resonated with me as much as it did. I do know that I get frustrated with people who use the wrong one. The English language has so many complicated and seemingly nonsensical spelling and grammar rules that are easy to screw up, but the rules governing when to use there, their or they’re are very simple; how can anyone mess that up on a regular basis?

Growing up, I had no choice but to pay attention to such details. Mom has a master’s degree in education and she specialized in teaching elementary school-aged children how to read and write properly. As her son, I was Mom’s pet project. In the days before the widespread popularity of personal computers, I spent many late nights writing and rewriting my elementary-school essays and papers by hand, until they were pitch perfect in Mom’s eyes. Just when I’d thought I’d fixed one mistake, Mom would find more mistakes. Every word had to be spelled properly, every sentence had to make sense, every statement had to be followed with details and corroborating evidence. Anything less, and I was sent back to my room, forced to do another rewrite, the cramping and soreness in my right hand be damned. I was a good student and Mom rarely helped me with my homework. But, she would always ask about my assignments. Any mention of an essay would be followed by “let me see it” and I knew I was in for a long night.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but Mom was molding me into a conscientious writer, but not just with the constant rewrites. Mom was a voracious reader and she helped make me into one, too. Mom didn’t always have a lot of money but, if I expressed interest in a certain type of book or in a specific author, Mom would provide those books for me; I easily had two to three times as many books as I did toys. Reading a lot of books, especially quality books, showed me what good writing should look like.

Growing up, I always assumed everyone saw and understood writing, spelling and grammar the same way I did. Of course, my classmates and I rarely shared each other’s writing and most of the writing I saw was written by professionals and/or professionally edited. However, the explosion of the Internet in the mid and late 1990s showed me – and the rest of the world – how bad many of us are at writing. In the days before it was easy to upload and consume video and audio online, writing was the primary means of communication on the Internet. In college, I regularly communicated with friends and total strangers through chat programs like AOL Instant Messenger and ICQ and was amazed how little some valued spelling and grammar. Of course, because you’re writing quickly and in short bursts, some rules are going to be ignored, intentionally or unintentionally. But, it was hard for me to take people seriously who regularly spelled words incorrectly or wrote emails with poor sentence structure. Mom always preached the importance of proofreading your writing, but that never mattered to me until I started communicating regularly on the Internet. The extra few seconds it takes to proofread a tweet or review an email before sending can be the difference between looking like a smart, thoughtful person and looking like an unintelligent buffoon.

There’s been a lot written about the decline in American writing due to the proliferation of things like Twitter, Facebook and text messaging. And, while I believe American writing seems poorer since the advent of such services, I think the real issue is greater exposure; if you couldn’t write before, few people would know. But, now, if you don’t know the basic rules of grammar or you spell like someone who’s never heard of a dictionary, your foibles are out there for the whole world to see. Literally. I never understood people who, when their poor spelling or grammar is pointed out to them, brush it off as not a big deal or unimportant (e.g. “Hey, it’s only Twitter. So what if I spell some words wrong?”). No one’s spelling and grammar is perfect all of the time, but we should strive to make our spelling and grammar as perfect as possible as often as possible.

The funny thing is, there are more tools than ever before to help us write well. Schoolchildren no longer have to do endless, time-consuming rewrites on composition notebook paper, like I did; instead, they can delete and backspace and cut and paste. If I spell a word incorrectly, it’s noted with a red, squiggly underline and the correct spelling is a click of the mouse away; I don’t have to flip through a thick dictionary or hope that I or someone else catches the misspelling during a subsequent edit. Of course, spell check doesn’t account for words that are spelled correctly, but used out of context; I probably see less outright misspellings on the Internet and more incorrect context mistakes. If I had a nickel for every time I saw people use fair when they mean fare, effect when it should be affect, your when they mean you’re or too instead of to, I’d be a wealthy man.

I wish everyone could get the education in proper writing, spelling and grammar that I got from Mom. But, what it comes down to more than anything is taking pride in what you write and in how you express yourself. Writing gives people a window into your personality, your intelligence and your attention to detail. Even if that writing is a simple tweet or a Facebook post and/or contains several abbreviations and colloquialisms, it’s important to get it right. Take pride in whatever you write.

There are always going to be some mistakes, but when people with poor writing skills aren’t challenged to improve, they’re being done a disservice. How else is their communication going to get better?

Yep. Still got it.