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Chris Erskine THE GUY CHRONICES

New Life Is Among Today's Best Investments

July 24, 2002|Chris Erskine

Across L.A.'s great basin we head. Bell. South Gate. Downey. The glorious Los Angeles River off to our right, a concrete trench that's dry as your stepmother's kiss. The L.A. River. Little Muddy.

"Good fishing, that river," I tell the little girl.

"It is?" she asks.

It's early Saturday morning and we are on our way to yet another softball tournament. Yes, this deep into summer, we're still playing softball. Maple leaves are shriveling in the July heat. The moms are tan as moccasins. Yet, we march on, a song on our sunburned lips.

"Old man river, he keeps on flowin'," I sing as we follow the L.A. River.

"Dad?"

"Huh?"

"Are we almost there?"

"Sure," I say.

Truth is, you're never there. Tournament softball is like the Deadhead tour that doesn't end, 15 all-stars and their parents barnstorming from town to town.

This weekend, Downey. Next weekend, Northridge. Most Hell's Angels don't see this much pavement.

On the way to Downey, we listen to the radio, flipping between news of Wall Street and the stuff that passes for music these days. It's no wonder I'm butchering old show tunes.

"Old man river, he keeps on flowin' ... "

"Dad?"

"Yes?"

"I don't get stocks," says the little girl.

So I explain the stock market to her, how once upon a time people would buy shares of great companies, and, when those companies did well, the people would make money.

A great joy swept the land. With very little effort, people could build quite a nest egg, even people of dubious skill and social worth. Stockbrokers. Columnists. Anybody.

"It was all profit based," I tell her.

"It was?" she asks.

"Yes, stock prices are mostly based on performance."

Then the joy stopped, I tell her. Scandals broke out. People who ran the companies lied about how well the companies were doing. No one was sure what anything was worth.

"They cooked the books," I tell her.

"Yuck," she says.

"You said it."

"That's so sad," she says.

"Things will get better," I assure her.

The little girl pauses and thinks about the world economy. Her role in it. The $2 blueberry muffin crumbled in her lap. Life. Must be more to it than she thought.

"I still don't get stocks," she says with a sigh.

At the tournament site, we pull in next to painted cars. What happens is that teams will paint players' names on the windows of minivans and Suburbans with shoe polish. Hannah. Courtney. Megan. This creates a certain amount of pride and team enthusiasm. It also mucks up your windows.

"How do people see out?" I ask.

"We should paint our windows," the little girl says.

"Our windows are dirty enough," I say.

Today, we play two games. As always, the other team seems older--big girls, far heftier than our own. In softball, a sensible dietary regimen seems to work against you.

"Never miss a meal, those girls," I say.

"Doughnut?" asks Coach Tom.

"Sure," I say.

Thwack. Thwack. Thwack.

Hear that? That's the other team's pitcher warming up. It's the sound of a sharp ax striking an oak log. Thwack. Thwack. Thwack.

"We can hit this girl," says Coach Glynn.

"We can?" asks Abby.

"Sure we can," says Coach Chuck.

"Really?" says Amanda.

Sure we can, though our players are largely unconvinced. They get up from the bench with the reluctance of a pregnant woman getting out of a canoe. They tiptoe to the on-deck circle. They stand at the plate, swinging late with their overpriced aluminum bats.

"We're on fire today," I tell Coach Tom.

"Another doughnut?" Coach Tom asks.

"Why not," I say.

Our coaches take a largely holistic approach to sports. We stress all the usual fundamentals: hitting, fielding, spitting. We also, during slow times, prep the kids for the SATs. You can never start too early.

"OK, where's the tibula?" I ask.

"There is no tibula," says Ruth, a left fielder of some promise.

"There isn't?"

"There's the fibula and the tibia," she says.

"Her dad's a doctor," says Robin, a steady right fielder.

"Next question," says Ruth.

Unfortunately, we're here for softball. But it's a great little tournament, full of wry observations and bad dugout jokes. If that's not enough, there's a grill with burgers and hotdogs. At another booth, roasted corn.

Here at Independence Park in Downey, they have four fine softball fields shoehorned into a tight area. It promotes intimacy and friendship. I can read the tattoos of people I would not otherwise read. We share each other's Friday night hangovers.

In the two days of the tournament, I spot only one ugly incident involving screaming parents, but it quickly ends. After 30 seconds of yelling, they sit back to let the summer's heat collect in their shoes. Married, probably.

The weekend's only real flaw comes at the end, when the Downey Police Department leaves a love note on my wife's windshield. Thirty-five bucks, it says. Illegal parking. Thanks, officer. Way to support youth sports.

"There were no other places," my wife explains to me.

"You need to respect the law," I tell her.

"When's the next time I'm going to be in Downey," she says. "They can come look for me."

Great, now I'm harboring a fugitive. I'd turn her in, but then what? She's pregnant, you know. You didn't? Yep, pregnant as a sparrow in spring.

Poor kid. They say jail is no place to raise a child, though we've had mixed results as well in our tree-lined little suburb.

Still, I think I won't turn my wife in. Things will get better. She'll learn to respect the law. She'll pay her debt to society (assuming we have any money left at the end of the week).

Besides, she's never more beautiful than when she's pregnant. And rarely more alive.

Life. As always, there's more to it than you think.

Next week: Getting birth control advice from your teenager.

Chris Erskine's column is published Wednesdays. He can be reached at chris.erskine@latimes.com.

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