Sunday, February 28, 2016

Finding Our Version of Perfect a Few Rows Down

My son walked through the tunnel connecting the upper concourse and the actual arena and paused as he took in the massive space that is the largest college basketball stadium in the country.  

“Whoa,” he muttered.  Whoa is right.

The boy's first glance at the Dome.
It was this five-year-old little boy’s first visit to Syracuse University's Carrier Dome. And, it was an awesome sight to behold: a world within a building, with a bulbous white roof like a puffy cloud arched over a coliseum big enough to hold 50,000 people and an entire football field, to boot.

For basketball games, they only use half the stadium, tucking a court into the one end. But the whole space is still there before you. And it’s immense.

All four of the kids stopped at the railing at the end of the tunnel and just gazed at the sight before them. We were three levels up, which added an element of height to the view as well. Our 8-year-old daughter, who happens to be afraid of heights, stood less close to the railing than the others. And while the dome looked bigger than they expected, I’m sure the court looked a bit smaller.

Then we turned away from the railing and showed our tickets to the usher. He pointed up the steep concrete stairs toward the rafters.

“Whoa,” I mumbled.  Whoa is right.

One of the older kids look at me as their expression of amazement, turned to disappointment. And it was then I knew I’d screwed up. On the day weeks before when I planned this rare family outing, my intuitive frugality – a.k.a. my tendency to be a cheap ass – had steered me toward more affordable tickets. And now, the usher was steering us to the cheap seats.


You learn pretty early on as a parent that perfection is impossible. It’s never more true than when it comes to the plans you make for you and your family. I’m not talking about the big plans, like where you’re going to be in five years. But the small plans, like what are we going to do this Saturday.

You can make all the plans you want, and envision all the perfect outcomes. When reality happens, one unforeseen variable can turn the whole affair on its head. Often that variable is out of your control: an unexpected toddler meltdown, an unsuspected stomach bug. Life has no shortage of flat tires. But, occasionally, the unforeseen variable was seeable. And you just ignored it because you’re dense, or overly optimistic, or cheap.

The day we went to the Dome for a basketball game started out pretty well. We decked ourselves in Orange and then piled into the van to make our way to the stadium. The excitement was palpable. For two of our children, it would be the first time to an SU game. For the rest of us, it was the first time we were going with the entire family.

I’d made the plan for this family outing to the Dome around Christmas. I’d picked a game on a Saturday against a lesser ACC opponent – as in not Duke or Carolina. Then I bought six tickets. It wasn’t cheap.

The plan felt perfect. I’d looked forward to it for weeks. Then reality arrived.
Picture it: A husband, a wife and four kids sitting on a cold, hard bench in the nose bleed section of the Carrier Dome, with row upon row of empty, cushioned seats between them and the third level railing. Picture, too, a miniature basketball court in the distance, complete with small ants in warmup suits doing what looked like lay-up drills. It was hard to tell.
Did I mention the 14 rows of seats between us and the third level overlook were all cushioned … and empty. Cushioned seats; all empty.
After the usher pointed us up the concrete staircase, one of the “glass-half-full” kids in our family saw the orange and white cushions and exclaimed, “Cushions! Yes!”
That lifted my heart momentarily.
Then we began our ascent to section 318, Row N. When we passed Row J, I realized the cushions were ending in a few rows, and it was cold metal from there on.
Row K? Cushions. L? Cushions. M? Cushions. N? No cushions. I could hear the air being let out of my pre-teen daughter’s mouth as she sighed at our cushion-less future.
She, too, was the one who vocalized our collective frustration as tip-off arrived and the seats in front of us remained empty.  “Really?!” she said.
Row M had cushions. It was also a few bucks more.
So, no cushions for us.
I kept smiling, and we did a few family selfies, as prompted by the Jumbotron. Then we tweeted the selfies to an appropriate hashtag to let the whole stadium see how happy we were despite having the worst seats for miles.
I tried to focus for a moment on exactly why I’d dragged the family there. And I knew it wasn’t for the views, or even the game. It was for the memories.
I’m getting older, and the memories of my youth are further and foggier than ever. But I do remember the first time I went to a real baseball game. It was Memorial Stadium in Baltimore. Orioles vs. Yankees. I was there. My dad was there. I don’t remember what our seats were like, probably not that great. I come from a 300 section kind of family. It’s just reality.
I also don’t remember many details of that game. Reggie Jackson was in the outfield. And Cal Ripken was probably playing – though that’s kind of cheating. I don’t recall if he was.
The truth is I don’t remember much about it. But I remember it. I remember the feeling it gave me.
That’s what we’re doing with our kids, why we plan so much, and drive so much, and fill our weekends – and most of our weeknights – with adventures and outings. It’s so a handful of those experiences will make it through the great distiller that is childhood memories and that they and us will come out on the other end happier.
And yet, it seemed there was a dearth of happiness in Section 318, Row N of the Carrier Dome that Saturday.
Luckily, I’m married to a woman who knows how to fix such problems. With a break in the basketball action – we knew because the ants all huddled on the sidelines -- she asked the kids if anyone wanted a pretzel. One thing I’ve learned in the many professional and college sporting events I’ve attended since that trip to Memorial Stadium is that the food makes up a quintessential part of the experience.
So, down the steps she went with a couple of kids in tow in search of overpriced pretzels.
I sulked in the seats with the remaining kids and contemplated the benefits of moving down one row into the empty cushioned seats before us. Would the usher notice? Would the kids learn the wrong lesson?  The truth is, most 300 sections let you move down to the better seats once it’s clear nobody’s coming to fill the slightly more expensive rows. Yet I couldn’t muster the will to decide what to do.
Then I saw my wife returning with the pretzels, rounding out of the tunnel to begin her ascent. And she did something brilliant; She sat down in the empty, cushioned row of seats by the railing. The usher didn’t even glance her way. Then she waved at us to come down.
It didn’t take much convincing to move the rest of the kids down to where she was.  It was only 14 rows closer than our seats. But the court was that much bigger, the players that much clearer and the seats that much better.
Suddenly, the kids were into it. The moment I’d planned for had arrived.
Can you guess who we were rooting for?
It helped that the game was a good one, with leads exchanged back and forth, and long shots made, and the crowd rapt with it all. The band played, and my kids chanted, “Let’s Go Orange” along with 23,000 others. The drama was so intense that my almost-teenaged daughter at one point anxiously exclaimed, “I didn’t sign on for this,” which is pre-teen lingo for “This is intense and awesome and I’m so into it.”
We all felt the same.
To top it off, Syracuse won -- in exciting fashion, no less. 

The A-team’s John “Hannibal” Smith used to say, I love it when a plan comes together. Why I’m quoting a member of the A-team is beyond me. But I thought of that oft-repeated quote from the mid-80s as this plan of mine came together, despite my best efforts to derail it under the guise of frugality.
And I realized something else. As a parent, you learn what real perfection actually looks like. It’s not perfect.
We achieved our version of it that day. And I’m sure the kids will remember it.