Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Albert Camus, Goalkeeper

Last night I played soccer as I normally do Monday nights.

Two years ago, I tore a ligament in my ankle playing. When I recovered I started playing goalkeeper with the thought that the position would be easier on my ankle. What I didn’t realize was that it would be tougher on every other part of me.

It’s a strange and difficult position to play but that said, it did enable me to see the game from a whole new perspective. It's widely believed that goalkeepers are insane and perhaps this view is correct. Why else would someone willingly choose a position that offers such a poignant and tangible opportunity to wallow in existential angst. It makes perfect sense then, that Albert Camus was a goalkeeper.

I find it tremendously reassuring when I learn that a literary hero is obsessed with sports. The Times recently featured an article about Jack Kerouac's obsession with baseball. Suddenly, the gods of the bookshelves become accessible to us mortals.

So in honor of Albert Camus, I've adopted these simple Existential Truisms of Goalkeeping:

1. When something good happens, it happens far away from me, while I stand alone.
2. When my team scores, it is not because of me. When the other team scores, it is all my fault.
3. When something good happens, I stop a shot, I am preventing the joy of another person.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Jackie Oh

I found this picture from my old yearbook from Christian Brothers High School in Memphis, Tennessee.

The school was (and still is) all-boys so naturally there are few places where females make an appearance in my old yearbook (other than the few brave, battle worthy female faculty members). Yet several girls appear on the few pages which were dedicated to the school dances. These pages show markedly awkward high-schoolers doing what they mostly do at high school dances – looking around at other kids who are likewise standing around, looking and so on and so forth. The boys look like they normally did during class hours, only now wearing blazers or sports coats. The girls all have corsages on their wrists and are wearing dresses of endless fabric that look stolen from the wives of polygamists. These pictures are stiff yet somehow they merited nerve-deadening captions: “Junior Gary Scott and his date, Wendy Gibbs find that a dance adds to their social life,” or “Exchange student Fabrizio Cappello and Senior Chris Meeks converse over a cup of Coke.” Well, I’m certainly glad we all cleared that up.

I was new to this school in my sophomore year, having just been transplanted from New York. The absence of females amid the pages of this yearbook is as jarring now as was their absence when I first walked the halls of this school. There was, however, one girl who commanded a substantial share of a yearbook for this, a school she was not attending: Jackie Adams. She was featured on the homecoming page, as homecoming queen. She was captain of the cheerleading squad. (CBHS had a cheerleading squad made up of girls who naturally, did not attend the school. Despite this paradox, Jackie’s squad managed to win a national championship, however it is that cheerleading championships are won). In addition there were other co-ed events; fund raisers, pep rallies and the like. Each of these had their own yearbook spread within which Jackie Adams was the center of gravity. Her every picture was anchored by the intransigent whole grain smile and waves of chestnut hair which framed her impossibly blue eyes. Everyone knew her name and whether admitted or not, every boy had a crush on her that crippled due to the impossibility of her beauty and the inordinate inadequacy of you being you. Without any close rival, she was the most popular girl in a school of all boys.

I’d never seen girls like this, so replete in perkiness, so American looking, so perfectly compiled. The young girls I went to school with in New York were precociously forming the niche identities they’d adopt in adulthood – hippie chicks, mafia spouses, mousy intellectuals, assertive professionals, moody affluent housewives – formations seeding in their early teens. Though I found many of them very attractive, none had Jackie Adams’ ironclad perfection. None exuded such Americaness in their poise. Jackie’s evolution was light years ahead, congealing towards the lead role in a real-life breakfast cereal commercial lit by transcendent sunshine amid white picket fences and floral oceans.

I found her intoxicating to the point of madness. The first time I saw her I was feebly playing my trumpet at a pep rally. The rally was in the school courtyard – Jackie’s cheerleading troupe was performing a routine surrounded by 800 teenage boys. We were all quite well behaved but the scene inside each one of us would have been more reminiscent of the when the Playboy bunnies visited the troops in Apocalypse Now. This was midway through my first semester and I’d fallen numb to the strange experience of existing for months with my mother being the only female with whom I’d conversed. I was physically and mentally light years away from any romantic capabilities. Due to their everyday absence, girls had now become an alien life form, talked about among the hallways like produce by football players and like the elusive Sasquatch among the rest of us.

I was convinced her existence was splendid at every turn and free of rainy days, bad grades, problematic relationships or defecation. For months, I’d harbored endless fantasies about her although these were hardly pornographic as I lacked the experience and exposure to conjure the colorful mechanics of sex. These fantasies mostly involved her abandonment of the popular crowd to join me in my room. She’d gaze longingly at me while I talked about Hendrix. She’d gush about my C- artwork to her friends. Mostly though, she’d just walk with me, as though to force the world to acknowledge me.

And so at that first pep rally, as I fumbled about with the spit valves of my trumpet, so entirely swept up in Jackie Adams, I was ignorant that every boy was under the same maddening state of delusion. Our collective lust and bewildering sense of futility must have been like a palatable cloud to her. She would simply continue this juggernaut of beauty effortlessly ignoring the din of hundreds of choirs of angels singing in vain in the heads of hundreds of repressed boys.

At the time we were heavy into F. Scott Fitzgerald in my English class. In Winter Dreams, Dexter Green must continually confront the siren of his passions, Judy Jones. I was convinced that I knew how the poor bastard felt. At the end of Gatsby, there’s that amazing line:
‘…No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will shore up in his ghostly heart.’
Brother Stephen asked the class what that meant. Of course no fifteen year old boy can hope to articulate how that passage is conveying that empty disappointment felt by life’s inability to deliver upon the enormities of passion’s expectations. But I became convinced that the surface poetry behind these words was drafted to describe the romantic quandary that was Jackie Adams and me. It became a mantra I’d chuck up against the negative reality that Jackie Adams could never be mine.

At the end of Winter Dreams, Dexter Green and Judy Jones are both married to other people and a mutual acquaintance describes Judy to Dexter as being somewhat less than magnanimous. The experience leaves Dexter almost paralyzed.

Years after CBHS, I was visiting Memphis with some friends from New York. I took them downtown to check out the sights – the blues clubs on Beale Street and the ducks in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel. We stopped in to have drinks at the lobby bar. And there was Jackie Adams sitting with what I’d say looked like two Ole Miss standard-issue twenty-something Alumni. It was a jarring experience. Her beauty was still there, a few years on but still within the Better Homes and Garden milieu. Yet, somehow there was now something entirely unremarkable about the way she carried herself, gracelessly drinking beer from a prosaic bottle of Michelob. I pointed her out to my friends the way one would sight a celebrity. They gazed at her for a second or two and then, obviously unimpressed, continued on where they’d left off in our conversation.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Celebrant

There I am thirty years ago.

Just look at me – the comfortable celebrant surrounded by the uplifting hands of the faithful. All are enveloped by the warmth that only a faux-wood paneled basement in Long Island can provide. And all the while, the Zenith black-n-white bears witness in the background. Shouldn’t all days be like this one?

Last weekend we had a birthday party for my daughter at our house and it made me recall this sixth birthday of mine wherein my parents hosted a similar event for me. I recall this day quite vividly and it is one of my happiest recollections of childhood. All my friends were there. My dad supervised a goofy Nerf basketball competition. By late afternoon, all the kids were picked up by their parents. I bid them all goodbye as I stood in my driveway. It was November and that certain slanted afternoon sunlight, uninhibited due to the South Shore's lack of topography, seemed to beckon me. The winter was coming for me and all I loved, but just not quite yet.

That night our family went to dinner at the Ground Round. All days should be just so.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Philadelphia Union

So allegedly, in 2010 we are to see the birth of Philadelphia’s own MLS team, the Union. Here we see their badge which carries an air of executive power to it. Parts of this make sense – there are the city colors blue and yellow, harkening back to the city’s Swedish roots. The 13 encircling stars are a nod to the city’s rich colonial past. Which I suppose also leads into the snake – don’t tread on me (or us).

So what happens when the New England Revolution meets the Philadelphia Union? It’s kind of a wet dream for soccer-loving history majors. The Revolution have men in colonial garb at their games. Will the Union follow suit? Will the opposing fans hash out their soccer differences in Federalism - States Rights showdowns?

In truth, I dream that America will have soccer rivalries that match the passion we see overseas and what better place for that than the Northeast Corridor that stretches from Philly Union through Red Bull New York then up to Boston’s New England Revolution? Two colonial bookends with an energy drink in between. Now that’s American!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Things to Come (Part Two)

Do not look at these men. I don’t look at them. I only look behind them.

And when I do look behind them, I only see Shea Stadium. We are standing in the approximate vicinity of home plate. It’s the 1970’s when so many of these player portraits were taken at Shea Stadium. I suppose before an age when digital photographs could be emailed, the New York-based Topps photographers would just camp out at Shea (or Yankee Stadium) and wait for teams to pass through town.

So here we are. Starting left to right: Behind the bookish Tom House you see Sections 32 of the Loge and Mezzanine (section 48 of the Upper Deck). These formed the northmost end of Shea's trademark unclosed circle. Behind House's glove, there stand the trademark twin light posts. Panning right, behind a menacing, neanderthal Greg Luzinski you can see the old right-center scoreboard back when it still featured its distinctive white outline. I especially like the Rheingold Beer sign - almost a compartmentalized reminder of the old Polo Grounds where a much more conspicuous Rheingold sign loomed. The last card is finally a Met, John Stearns. Behind him, to the left (his right) you can see the completion of the scoreboard that started with Luzinski. Lastly over Stearn’s left shoulder you see the completion of the Upper Deck -Section 47. The circular coliseum that began over Tom House has swept behind you and ended over Stearn's left.

Now that Shea Stadium is no longer with us, I feel fortunate that such a vast number of Topps portraits were taken there. As I mentioned in my last post, I'll be heading to Citi Field next month to see my first game there thanks to my good friend Donnie. I know that when I first step off the Number 7 subway line, the first thing that will seize me will be the enormous void created by the now absent Shea. I somehow know that that empty space will supplant the wonders of Citi Field as my first impressions congeal.

Everyone, even die-hard Yankee fans, have been praising Citi Field. I suppose this new facility is like a new puppy I won't accept because I'm still clinging onto memories of a beloved old dog. I've been spending a lot of time looking for Shea Stadium in my old cards, fondly recalling its innumerable imprefections and bad plumbing. Like Howie Rose once said, "It was a dump...but it was our dump."

Things to Come (Part One)

I'm not adoring my job lately. Like Walter in The Bread of Those Early Years, I "hate it the way a boxer hates boxing." Then again, I do have survivors guilt - I am grateful to be employed. Still, it is hard to walk away from the day I had today, a day that put on its steel-toed boots, backed up ten feet and then kicked me in square the balls. I'll retire in 31 years.

When I got home, I put on my Mets jersey. I got this jersey from my friend Donnie. He got married last September, giving all his groomsmen baseball jerseys from their favorite teams. I pulled this out of my closet tonight and it made me feel marginally better.

My wife and the kids had already eaten by the time I made it home. I ate by myself at the kitchen table. When I was a kid I saw my dad do this most nights - eating by himself, exhausted, fried, defeated. Sometimes all you can do is suck down a beer and shove some grub down your gullet. Sustain, survive, repeat.

My son and I are watching the Mets play the Braves right now. I let him watch for a half hour before he goes to bed. This has become a nightly ritual we've started and I wish it could continue until the end of time. Those faithful readers recalling my Bob Horner post know what a crisis a Mets-Braves game can be for my psyche. We're losing 3-2 going into the bottom of the ninth.

I'm still wearing the jersey that Donnie gave me. He's an amazing guy - a jet-setting senior VP at a major advertising firm down in the city. Thanks to Donnie, I'll be going to my first game at the Mets' new home, Citi Field next month to see the Mets play the Yankees.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Happy Mother's Day

To my very own dear mum...the greatest one out there:

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Bread of Those Early Years

Usually when I'm in our town library, I have my five-year-old daughter in tow, tugging at my arm. At times, I will simply reach up onto a shelf, randomly grab a book for myself and then hope for the best. The last time I performed this maneuver, I struck gold with Heinrich Boll's The Bread of Those Early Years.

This is the story of a Monday in the life of Walter Fendrich, a 23 year-old washing machine repairman in 1950's Germany with all it's post-war baggage and delicacies. Fendrich disdains his job. "I hate it the way a boxer hates boxing."

Yet he is endlessly haunted by his days of wartime hunger and it is an obsession with bread that anchors these remembrances. There is something in the fundamental and Eucharistic implications of bread. His longing for bread during those years had transformed him, at least in his own mind, into something animalistic and primal.

The stoic and deliberate pace of Walter's life is broken up when his father asks him to meet the daughter of a friend arriving at the train station. From there, he is to bring this young lady to a rooming house where she will begin her life as a schoolteacher in the city.

When Walter finally meets this young woman, Hedwig, he is unglued. Something overtakes him that is maddening. He describes himself at one point of being jealous of the pavement that she walks upon. Walter's hunger has now returned. Love, like bread seems a fundamental, sustaining element of life. Yet what Walter feels for Hedwig seems to consume him with an almost hostile possession rather than a benevolent, blissful, uplifting affection.

The dialogue in this book is German in its directness and economy. It provides a wonderful complement to the infinite storms of emotion that these characters, most of all Walter, maintain.

Walter is hungering physically and emotionally. He hungers for some meaning to his life beyond the washing machines he repairs and the banality of his environment. Is his hunger for Hedwig real or just a temporary transference of a hunger that can never be sated?

Thursday, May 7, 2009

What is evil?

I keep getting these overseas scam-emails - you know - if you send them one thousand dollars, they'll send you eight million. Well I took the latest one I got and I broke it up into modernist poetry:

It may interest you to hear
that I am a Man of peace
and I don't want problem
but I do not know how you will feel
about this
because you may have double mind.

But I am telling you
that this is real
and you are not going to regret
after doing this transaction with me

my branch
in which I am the manager
made three million
seven hundred and fifty thousand dollar
which my head office is not aware of and will never be aware of

Oh that stupid head office! You know there's a whole subculture of people here in the states who scam these guys - they scam the scammers. They pose as dumb American charities and then tell these yahoos that they'll give them cash, in person, if they'll come to pick up said money at a designated spot. Of course, said designated spot is someplace awful...like war-torn Chad. Then they toy these guys for weeks as these scammers sweat it out hoping to receive some bundle of cash that never arrives.

It's kind of brilliant..and evil.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Knobby Knees

Yup. That’s me there with the beanpole legs and the knobby knees. I was the kid who always played defense. I had no nose for the ball – never went up front. Some kids are like that. I coach my son’s team and there comes a point where some kids just gravitate towards defending. It’s an instinctual choice.

My son, on the other hand, seems to have a preternatural ability to score. He’s a tall blond broad shouldered kid and at age six-going-on-seven, he’s faster than I am. He wears a red jersey almost identical to the one I’m wearing in this picture. I wore number 5 – he wears 25. In just about every category, he’s five times what I was at his age.

The other night I played in the weekly adult pickup game here in town. The other players are generally guys my age who also coach their sons. For the most part, they play better than me as do the small contingent of Latin American guys who seem to materialize as the game starts. By game’s end, I’m a wheezing lump of bones and I’ll be nursing the bruises of a series of collisions with larger guys that had sent me to the turf.

The other night, though, I made two strong hard strikes. Clear shots, both. One missed the goal on the left by a foot or so. The other hit the right post. I have no nose for the ball. In between these two disappointments, I mostly stuck to defense, jamming my ankles into opposing strikes, throwing my body into a shot against goal, taking molar-jarring headers to break up plays. I defend. It’s instinctual.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Toronto FC

I always associate Toronto with two things: inordinately polite people and that gentlemanly prog-rock band, Rush. So the last thing that I would associate with the City of Toronto would be soccer hooliganism.

Now let me clarify that I’m not calling Toronto FC fans hooligans, but accusations have been batted about. These are, without a doubt the most passionate fans in Major League Soccer (in my opinion at least). It’s just that in the vast plethora of American sports, and in our early genesis of American Professional Soccer, this use of the “H” word is rushed and wildly inaccurate.

Now there is (and always has been) violence among American/Canadian sports spectators. I’ve been to enough Yankee-Mets games to attest to that! But I usually qualify American fan violence under the category of “drunks beating the crap out of one another”. A sort of Darwinism in action.

Hooliganism is something different – it’s organized and terrifying. It takes its roots in a myriad of social ills, albeit abetted by alcohol. The Hooliganism that made England famous is virtually extinct now but it still exists in parts of Eastern Europe and South American on a scale that makes it something an average American spectator couldn’t stomach.

Either way, perhaps to elicit better behavior from their faithful, Toronto FC should a adopt a badge that doesn’t look like a modified advert for Molson Canadian Lager.