Sunday, August 31, 2008

Summer encore VI

Tuesday, March 25, 2008
Mis-speaking

(Note: This was a not-so-cleverly disguised jab at Hillary's "I avoided sniper fire in Bosnia" comment that she described as "mis-speaking"). Tomorrow, I will publish the last of the most widely read posts I wrote. It wouldn't have been the one I picked, to the extent that I would have picked any of them.

In May 1954, seven years before I was born, I sat on the steps of the United States Supreme Court, all jiggly and goose-bumpy, after the justices handed down their decision holding state-mandated segregation in public schools unconstitutional (that's me, with my cousin, on the right). Even at the tender young age of pre-pre-pre-viability, I was fortunate enough to be part of the NAACP's legal team that argued Brown v. Board of Education. Don't get me wrong -- Thurgood Marshall deserves some of the credit he's received over the years for building the legal strategy that resulted in this historic decision. But let's not forget that I was out there in the woods with him, arguing cases in small towns throughout the Deep South. There was that one time when I was in Yadkinville, North Carolina, where I had traveled to argue a case on behalf of teen-age African-American boy who had been sentenced to death by a local jury for a crime he didn't commit (the white woman he allegedly killed would later confess to her minister, who told the local sheriff, who told the local barber, who told the local operator that she made the whole thing up to get back at ole' Jesse Staples, who stood her up at the Sadie Hawkins dance during her sophomore year in high school). I'd come into town to take this case because nobody else would, something I was used to doing on behalf of people who needed their day in court but couldn't afford a fancy lawyer. So this judge -- and this is true just like the sun rises in South and sets after dark -- says to me, he says, "You looka here, Mr. Ivers . . . we don't really appreciate colored lawyers from the North comin' down here lookin' to agitate our ways and all. So if you don't mind, I'm gonna have ole' Lowell here drive you to the county line and wish you well. For your own good."

Sure enough, Lowell drove me to the county line and dropped me one foot over it, just far enough so that I was now the problem of Hillsborough County. But Lowell said something to me I'll never forget . . . he said, "Sir, I think the work you're doing on behalf of African-Americans down here is noble, and something that history will recognize you for one day. But you can't tell anybody I told you that 'cause they'll take my job and my hide and . . .

BAM! A shot rang out, and I dropped straight to the ground, and then crawled over to an abandoned Confederate war ship that had been abandoned, Praise the Lord, not five feet from where Lowell dropped me. I managed to get there safely, even as the gunfire, which was now coming from all directions, got more intense. RAT-A-TAT-TAT! RAT-A-TAT-TAT! I tucked myself behind an old yard arm, pulling my son, Herschel, who hadn't been born yet to the woman I decided not to marry, to safety.

Then . . . silence. The threat had passed, and Herschel and I hiked the 275 miles back to Washington, D.C., just in time to get something to eat at the old Friendly's down near what is now Metro Center before it closed, which, in those days, was early or late, depending on what time it was.

* * * * * * * * * *

A few months later, I made what, to this day, is considered the greatest catch by a center fielder
in the history of Major League Baseball (on the left, running with my back to the ball in the deepest part of the Polo Grounds, so named for Ralph Lauren, who even though he was only a year or two old, bought the naming rights to the Giants stadium for bupkis). In those days, though, I went by the name Willie Mays, a name given to me on the playgrounds of San Francisco, where I learned to play baseball in the 1930s and 40s. My parents renamed me Willie Mays so that I'd have a better chance of gaining admission to Harvard, Columbia or Yale, which placed a quota on the number of Jews it admitted each year, but, like all elite schools in the pre-civil rights era, aggressively recruited African-Americans. Our family name was Brandeis, and my father, Louis, believed that advertising our ethnicity would hurt my chances to succeed where he hadn't. "Schlomo," he used to tell me, "being only a Supreme Court justice brought shame to our family. I want something more for you. I want you to be Chief Justice." So he changed my name and, knowing the advantage that black skin had for an ambitious young man in America, made me an African-American. What he didn't know was that his decision to bridge that racial and religious divide would make me the greatest center fielder of all-time, and the most beloved athlete ever to play in New York, more so than Joe Namath or Joe Pepitone or Joe Torre or Brad Park or Mickey Mantle or Lawrence Taylor or Willis Reed.

* * * * * * * * * *

In the early 1960s, I converted back to Caucasianism and moved to Great Britain. Bored to tears playing in the local production of "My Fair Lady," I accepted the invitation of a couple of lads I met down at the local pub to join their band. After a few years of playing rough bars on the Liverpool docks and the underground clubs in Hamburg, where I met, married and then divorced my second wife one night, we made a couple of good records and caught the attention of an American promoter, who brought us to the States to appear on the Ed Sullivan show and play a few gigs in Washington, D.C. I remember the excitement I felt walking on the tarmac at JFK Airport in New York (that's me, the goofy-looking one in the back behind John Lennon), thinking I had finally made it, that . . . finally I would impress my father, whose heart I had broken by not becoming a rabbi, and my mother, who had not spoken to me since I gave up the home run to Bill Mazeroski in the 1960 World Series to blow the World Series for the Yankees. But, rather than being thrilled for me, they were forlorn, with looks of disappointment that had settled deep into the crevices of their weathered faces.

"All this, and for what," my father asked. "To become a Beatle?"

* * * * * * * * * *

That episode, which happened when I was three, humbled me for many decades and put me into a funk that would last for thirty more years. Then, on September 5th, 1995, I played in my 2,130th consecutive major league baseball game for the Baltimore Orioles, tying my old teammate from the 1927 New York Yankees, Lou Gehrig. I hit two home runs that night, and, after the second one, my teammates pushed onto the field for a curtain call. I don't know what came over me, but I started shaking hands with fans on the first base line, and before you know it, I took a lap around the entire field, high fiving everyone with arms long enough to reach down over the walls. That night is considered by many baseball fans, quite justly, as the night that saved baseball. I couldn't agree more.

I would do it again, weaving through the sniper fire a second time. I had crossed the Commander-in-Chief threshold once, back during my service as team captain of my college intramural softball team, and I was prepared to do it again. Baseball was and is bigger than just one person, unless that person is me.

* * * * * * * * * *

I was going to write some more, but a friend of mine I spoke with earlier today pointed out that these brief snapshots of my life don't bear any relationship to the person he's known for 35 years. "You didn't play with Lou Gerhig in 1927," he said. "Neither of your parents was religious, much less a rabbi. You were never black. You didn't play with the Beatles. You didn't argue Brown v. Board of Education, and you didn't avoid sniper fire running a celebratory lap after hitting a home run in Camden Yards because you never played one game in the major leagues, much less 2,162 consecutive ones. If you ever decide to run for public office, you'll get fried for making statements like that."

Mea culpa (French for, "I fucked up."). So I misspoke. So what? Haven't you ever confused people, places and events that you've written and spoken about for . . .

. . . oops! Phone's ringing . . . . gotta answer it.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Summer encore V

Tuesday, May 06, 2008
Strom Thurmond Redux?

(Note: One of many critical pieces I wrote about Bill and Hillary Clinton's behavior during the Democratic primary season. No regrets about anything I wrote.

In 1948, Harry Truman faced a three-front war in his battle to continue the legacy of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the four-time elected Democrat who guided the United States through the Great Depression and World War II. On his left was Henry Wallace, running as the Progressive Party candidate. On his immediate right was Thomas Dewey, the Republican governor of New York who really wasn't all that conservative, at least not compared to the last thirty years of Republican presidential nominees who have sought and held the office.

On his far, far right was Strom Thurmond, the South Carolina Democrat and committed segregationist who found President Truman's decision to desegregate the military so offensive that he broke with his party to run for president on the Dixiecrat ticket. Said Thurmond:

"I wanna tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that there's not enough troops in the army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the nigra race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches."

For his efforts, Thurmond won 4 states (South Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama) and 38 electoral votes. Thurmond left the party in 1964, further disillusioned by President Lyndon Johnson's decision to support the civil rights movement and embrace the black vote, a decision that still continues to define the major schism between the Democratic and Republican parties in American politics. Today, 43 African-Americans serve in Congress. Forty-two serve in the House and one, Barack Obama, serves in the Senate. Not one is Republican.

Since the 2008 South Carolina Democratic primary, the racial fault line in American politics has moved to the Democratic side. President Bush's interest in mending the post-1964 African-American abandonment of the Republican has been nonexistent, and the prospect of John McCain, whose presidential campaign theme has now settled around a desire to re-elect George Bush to a third term, serving as a Republican ambassador to entice black America to come with him is pure fantasy. African-American voters have always supported Democratic nominees more so than any other major party constituency, with American Jews the only other group that even comes close in party loyalty. But this year will be different. For the first time in my political lifetime, a Democratic nominee has all but abandoned the African-American vote in an effort to consolidate the "white working class," banking on the belief that enough white, blue collar Democrats will not take the dare to vote for a black presidential candidate. The Clinton campaign's decision to make Barack Obama a black presidential candidate, rather than just Hillary's rival for the Democratic nomination, is an absolutely stunning development. I can't quite figure out whether the mainstream media and the political commentators who dominate those airwaves are just in denial over such an explicit exercise in racial politics or are so deluded in their thinking that they actually believe that something other than race is what has pushed Hillary's campaign forward in the last month. The mainstream media's decision to turn the other cheek on the racial bludgeon taken up by the Clintons either reflects their own ignorance or some darkly cynical need to push a story line -- Jeremiah Wright's crazy street preaching -- that bears absolutely no relationship to Obama's ability to hold public office for the sake of ratings. Her support among African-Americans has plummeted to a low that would make a Republican blush, an accomplishment not matched by any modern Democratic presidential contender

Let's be real. The policy differences between Hillary and Obama are insignificant. Hillary's decision to embrace the gas tax holiday is nothing more than an effort to buy last minute votes. Six months ago, Hillary was the serious, smart candidate, the one with 35 years of experience who would be ready on Day One. Now, she is Rosie the Riveter, a convert to the "values" of small town America who doesn't need a fancy economist to tell her what real people need from their government. But the "working class" in the small towns that is giving Hillary her latest second wind is white, not black. African-Americans comprise a much greater percentage of poor people within their demographic group than whites. African-Americans are hit much harder than other groups by fixed taxes because their incomes, on average, are lower than whites. None of this seems to register with the mainstream media, which pushes the Clinton spin on Obama's inability to close the "Bubba" gap. In every state where Obama has faced an uphill demographic climb, i.e., he faces a large swath of the population that is white, ethnic (i.e., Irish or Italian Catholic), not college educated and/or working in white collar jobs, elected officials in those states have admitted that "certain white voters" will not cast their ballot for a black man. No matter. That story is moved to the side and we get wall-to-wall Jeremiah Wright. Here we are, fighting a war to export democracy, religious freedom and ethnic tolerance in Iraq, and we still have a lingering, "Is America ready to vote for a black man?" question hanging over the American presidential race. The questions raised about Obama by the mainstream media and the Clinton campaign -- Jeremiah Wright, the Farrakhan association, William Ayers -- all have a sharp and distinctive racial cast to them. These symbols were chosen deliberately to give white voters uncomfortable with black people in positions of power (other than sports and entertainment) a cover that seemed reasonable. Someone who votes for Hillary in the primary and decides s/he can't vote for Obama in the general cannot come to that conclusion independent of race. Obama has not made a deliberate effort to demonize Hillary because she's a woman. Conversely, a large number of Obama voters who ordinarily would have voted for Hillary in the general election are so genuinely repulsed by the explicit appeal to race by the Clinton campaign that they may well sit it out, should it come to that. Pick-up trucks, NASCAR events, inane giveaways like the gas tax plan, the staged shot-and-beer phot ops . . . all these are designed to appeal to a "white working class" that could not be more removed from Hillary Clinton's last 35 years in public and private life.

In a few hours, this mess in the Democratic party, created and stoked by the Clintons, will hopefully be over. Really . . . two states that are largely irrelevant to Democratic politics have been anointed as the campaign's defining moment, a truly crazy development. Indiana and North Carolina are states with ignoble racial histories (the Copperheads, the Klan and Jesse Helms, for starters) that, have for the most part, sided with Republicans in modern presidential politics. Had Obama won Indiana and North Carolina back in February or early March, I bet that the Clintons would have added them to the list of "insignificant" states that don't really matter because (a) they will go Republican in November anyway and (b) they didn't win them.

Strange, strange and stranger. The last major battle of the Democratic primary season, which has been mathematically over for a month and a half, now comes down to two blocs of swing voters: those who hate the Clintons for what they've done to the party vs. those who "aren't ready" to vote for a black man for president. It should not have been this way, and the blame for the party's now-sorry state rests solely with Bill and Hillary Clinton.

Summer encore IV

Thursday, January 03, 2008
Table Top Hockey For Grown-Ups

(Note: Nothing has changed since I wrote this one. The crazies are still crazy and beer, which is legally available to everyone in our league at all times, still has a strangely disproportionate role in all of this).

For the past five years, I have played adult hockey two or three times a week, year round. As an adjective, "adult," in this context, does not have the same meaning as "adult" does when used to modify such words as "entertainment," "films," "situations," "content," or "swim." Except to change in and out of their hockey gear, no one takes their clothes off and keeps them off. Language, though, is another story. What adult hockey lacks in sex appeal, though, it makes up for in the creative, often genre-bending use of language to express enthusiasm, dispute a referee's decision, question another player's sexual orientation or gender, describe a goalie's skills, accuse an opposing player of felonious behavior or threaten an opponent with a gun duel or fight in the parking lot after a game. Grown men -- in the chronological sense, anyway -- use "adult" language to vent their frustrations in a way that puts any eight year-old's worst temper tantrums to shame, or an early teen just learning to use compound curse words. Here's a quick comparison across time, based on my coaching and playing experience, of eight to 46 year-old behavior:

Eight year-old: "Coach, I was only out for 42 seconds on my last shift! How come Josh's line played 1:19 minutes? I wanna quit!"

Fourteen year-old: "Jesus fuckin' Christ, pay fucking attention shit hole it's my fuckin' turn to go out damn fuck asswipe shithead. Piss damn pussy dickbrain are you paying fucking attention? "

Forty-six year-old: "How come I always have to play on Marty's line? He fucking sucks, doesn't fucking backcheck, just stands the fuck around doing fucking nothing. Fuck this shit . . . I can play on any team I want . . . I don't need this fucking shit!"

More so than any other sport I've played in my life -- and, from childhood through adulthood, I've played them all -- ice hockey, for some inexplicable reason, brings out the psychotic underside of even the most mild-mannered, reasonable, hey, don't-worry-about-wrecking-my-car, church-going, let-me-help-you-with-your groceries, law-abiding adult male. Guys you could never imagine stepping on an anthill, guys that stay home on Halloween to give out candy in excess quantities, guys who would stop to fix a flat tire for you in the rain or give -- not loan -- you $20 no questions asked, guys who willingly humiliate themselves at children's birthday parties to make the kids laugh, guys who agree to wear a theme sweater for a Christmas card picture . . . yes, guys like that . . . the good ones . . . can turn into raving psychopaths if they feel an opponent has slashed them behind the play, out of the referee's sight, or if they believe another team has imported a "ringer" in violation of league rules, or if they have a goal disallowed or have been called for an unjustified penalty. About a year ago, we were playing a team that included a prominent psychiatrist among its players. We were beating this team by five or six goals with about three minutes to play. The psychiatrist scored a goal, only to have it disallowed because of a teammate's crease violation. This guy went absolutely ballistic, throwing his stick over the glass, where it got caught in the protective netting that surrounds the rink, cursed the referee to the point where the veins were popping out of his throat, took off his helmet and threw it down the ice, then skated over to his team's bench, picked up all the water bottles he could find and threw them on the ice. He then skated over to our bench, stopped, leaned and said, "You'll fucking get yours you bunch of fucking assholes!" The referee then skated him off the ice. For his efforts, he received a 2 minute penalty for delay of game, a 2 minute penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct and a game misconduct, which meant he couldn't play in the next game. All because he had a goal disallowed. But . . .

"adult" hockey being "adult" hockey, he found a group of us in the parking lot after the game, walked over with a six pack of beer, gave it to me and apologized. Here's the thing: he was sincere in his apology, no one held his behavior against him and the free beer simply honored the adult hockey code -- when you think you've screwed up, pissed off your teammates or behaved badly towards another player, you acknowledge your transgression by bringing your teammates or offended opponents some beer. All is then forgotten.

* * * * * * * * * *
Beer is the all-purpose elixir of the adult hockey world, sort of like a box of Russell Stover was for mothers of my generation -- the perfect gift to say "thanks," or "I'm sorry," or "Despite his behavior, Gregg did really enjoy having you for an English teacher this year." Beer excites men who play hockey like nothing else. Sometimes, if a game is going badly, a guy might shout down the bench, "Come on, guys, there's beer afterwards. Let's just play it out and have a cold one." If tempers get heated on the ice, the calmer heads might say to each other in the face-off circle, "Jesus, man, you'd think there wasn't beer waiting for everyone after the game." Beer, beer and more beer. This is why no one who plays adult hockey calls it adult hockey. We call it beer league.

Beer is taken so seriously among adult players that people who don't drink beer after games are viewed with a level of suspicion that is matched only by learning that the really nice guy who just joined your team is a lawyer. Nice? An attorney? In Washington? Can't be, can it? A few years ago, I turned down an after-game beer from a guy on another team that we had just beat pretty badly. I thanked him but turned him down for the same reason I don't drink with my teammates after games -- athletic exertion and alcohol, for me, just don't mix. You would have thought, though, that I had just inquired whether his mother was available for an edition of MILF Hunter or whether she would provide sexual favors for my teammates. Every time I was on the ice against this guy the next time we played his team was this:

"It's the queer that don't drink beer! . . . it's the queer that don't drink beer!" . . . and on and on he went. A friend of mine who played for this team skated over to him after about the fourth or fifth round of this, put his glove on this guy's shoulder and said something to him. The "taunting" stopped. In the handshake line after the game, this guy pulled me aside and "apologized" for his oh-so-creative sloganeering. "I had no idea, man, that you were an alcoholic. I'm so sorry. I can relate, man, I've got family that's struggled. God bless you!"

I didn't know what to say, so I didn't say anything at all. My friend was standing off to the side laughing hysterically. Okay, okay, I nodded. You got me.

So what happened later? I was putting my hockey bag in my car when I heard someone say, "Hey, man, I'm sorry and I just wanted to apologize again." I turned around and it was my nemesis, the guy who had just apologized to me on the ice. "Hey, don't worry about it," I said. "You couldn't have known."

"Let me make things right," he responded. He held out a six-pack of beer.

"I can't. You know . . . " I told him.

"Not even one?"

"No, not even one."

"Shit, man, that sucks."

About a month later, we played his team again. This time he didn't say a word to me when we were on the ice together. But the first chance he got, he checked the living hell out of me, gladly taking his two minute penalty without an argument, something most players don't do. Later on, as I was preparing for a face-off, I heard him shout from his defenseman's position, "DON'T YOU EVER TURN DOWN A FUCKING BEER FROM ME AGAIN, YOU FUCKING NON-ALCOHOLIC BASTARD!" I looked over at the opposing bench, and my friend was doubled over in laughter. What could I do?

So what happened after the game? Would you believe me if I told you that the same guy who had just yelled at me on the ice walked over to my car, gave me a beer, extended his hand, didn't say a word and walked back to his car? Hockey code.

True story.

* * * * * * * * * *

A goalie that sometimes comes out to play in a closed pick-up game I play in on Sunday nights pours scotch into the water bottle he keeps on top of the net. How do I know this? I was the last one getting on the ice one night, and the goalie was finishing up with his equipment. He reached into his hockey bag, took out a bottle of scotch, and poured it into the squirt bottle he took with him out on the ice.

Whatever works for you, I guess.

* * * * * * * * * *

I knew nothing about the world of adult hockey until December 2002. My son started an instructional hockey program, and I started skating again after a 26 year layoff so that I could take him to public skates and eventually get out on the ice with him. Until then, my ice hockey experience had consisted of one pick-up game organized by some guys in my neighborhood when I was about 14. Growing up in Atlanta, there was only one ice rink, and very few people knew where it was, much less how to skate. In 1972, when I was 11, the NHL awarded a franchise to Atlanta, the now Calgary Flames, and I fell completely in love with hockey. My friends and I started playing street hockey in Jeff Balser's cul-de-sac, spray painting lines on the street for offsides. We even built a penalty box, which resembled, now that I think about it, a dunking booth. One of the older kids in the neighborhood had moved down from Michigan, and he got the bright idea one day to rent some ice at our local rink. The only ice we could afford didn't start until midnight, but we went ahead and played anyway. Of course, we hadn't thought about equipment. No one had any, so we took catcher's gear and turned it into hockey protective gear. And, yes, the goalie even used phone books with duct tape, just like the guy in the Mighty Ducks movie. I remember using football shoulder pads, catcher's shin guards and some mittens. Helmets? The pros didn't even use them, so wearing one never crossed any of our minds. I remember having a great time for that hour or so. I never imagined that I would do the same thing -- with real equipment this time -- two or three times a week at 11.00 o'clock at night 26+ years later.

Finding an adult team is sort of like joining the Mob. My invitation into the adult hockey world came in January 2003, when I was skating with my son at what's called a "stick and puck" session. Local rinks reserve ice time for informal practice sessions. You can skate, shoot on goalies, provided one comes, organize scrimmages, play small games and so on. I was standing around fiddling with the puck waiting for a turn to shoot on the goalie when a guy I had never seen skated up to me and asked, "Who do you play for?"

I had just learned about adult hockey leagues a week or so before when the Washington Post ran a great story in its Sunday magazine on their growing popularity. By coincidence, I had met one of the guys whose team was featured in the story the week before. He told me about how to get on a team, but told me that most rosters were "frozen" because the season had already started. Luckily, for me, my free agent status turned out to work in my favor.

I told this guy I didn't play for anyone but wanted to. He told me, looking around carefully to make sure no one could hear him, to show up the next night at the Wheaton Ice Rink and I could play for his team. My biggest fear went right to the heart of male sports insecurity . . .

"Just tell me I won't be the worst one out there," I said.

"Not even close," he said.

"'Not even close?'" Intriguing. Was I that good? Maybe I was. Maybe I would become the first over-40 suburban dad who had never played a game of organized ice hockey to make it to the NHL. Maybe . . .

. . . I had just gotten carried away with myself. I didn't know what to expect when I showed up the next night in the locker room, but it never occurred to me that I had just joined a team that made the Johnstown Chiefs look like the 1984 Edmonton Oilers. Bob, the man who had recruited me the day before, was right. I wasn't the worst player . . . more like one of the least incompetent.

The opening face-off did not bode well for my new amateur career. My opponent must have weighed a good 375 lbs. We got tangled up on the draw, and, as fate would have it, he fell on me right at center ice. I managed to get up, thankful that I had decided to buy the more expensive shoulder pads when I was getting myself outfitted. Turns out this guy had moved to the U.S. from Canada to attend college, but had never played hockey before. Just my luck. I get crushed by the only Canadian never to play his country's national sport.

I survived though, and went on to score a couple of goals. My new teammates accepted me right away, even though I was the second oldest guy on the team. The "Force," as we were known, consisted of a husband and wife team -- he, a self-styled unappreciated hockey genius who consistently shouted unintelligible instructions at us; she, an absolutely delightful woman who was always the first to give up her shift if she felt we had a chance to protect a lead or tie a game -- three guys straight out of college who all played lacrosse and were slow to learn the rules on stick control in hockey; a professional firefighter who was our star player and with whom I developed an instant and lasting friendship; a couple of random head cases, including one guy who used to speak French to everyone even though he was an American who merely learned the language in college; and, of course, Bob, who was a year or two older than me, and was picking up the game again for the first time since high school. Bob and I sort of became the internal police on our team, holding off the young guys who were determined to take their lacrosse backgrounds on the ice, and acting as diplomatic envoys to other teams who had their share of former lacrosse players sprinkled in their midst. Strangely enough, the Force began to take on a significance in my life disproportionate to its actual importance. Bob would call me once or twice a day to talk about line adjustments and power play units. Steve the Firefighter would email me with questions about whether so-and-so should play left or right wing, and should we go after the Berlin Brothers on the Cobras or just let them take their penalties. Here's the scary part: I thought about these questions, and actually found myself scribbling out line combinations, power play units, guys who I thought should kill penalties and whether anyone should encourage our goalie to attend some clinics to improve his glove hand. Really, I did. In high school, I used to spend most of my time calculating my batting average, or whether I'd rather play with Chris Squire or Paul McCartney if I were granted my dying wish of choosing a bassist to start my band. But I was 15 or 16 then. Now, I was adult with a mortgage, "tax strategies" to think about, two kids and a leaky basement. Why was I thinking about this stuff?

A lot?

* * * * * * * * * *

The Force, by mutual consent, disbanded after our initial season together, and I ended up playing for a new team to which I was also recruited. This fortunate turn of events meant I got to meet the one person who is by far the best reason to have ever played adult hockey. In every league, there is one player who everyone knows, whether they play on the same team with him or not. Everyone knows him not because he is the best player, the fastest skater or the quickest shot. No, it's that distinctive personality, combined with certain physical traits, bizarre political views and the world's largest collection of hockey-related clothing, broken sticks, used gloves, game worn jock straps, Mario Lemeiux's childhood underpants, and other such stuff.

In our league, that person is Lowell.

My first encounter with Lowell came when my first team, the Force, was playing his team, whose name I've now forgotten. Before the game, I noticed a guy on the other team who resembled Shrek had Shrek decided to join Hell's Angels. He was 6'9" on skates, and, as I would later discover, about 390 lbs. During our first game against Lowell's team, I was along the boards fighting for the puck when all of a sudden I felt a stick go up between my legs into a rather sensitive area. Then a second guy, only a little smaller, joined in the fun. Then I heard this scruffy voice go, "Feel like you're in prison? How's the shower room treating you? Does this feel good?"

No, it didn't feel good, and for the rest of the game I was terrorized by Lowell and his fellow henchman. After the game, Lowell stood waiting for me in the lobby with a big grin on his face. "Jesus," I thought. "Why him?" Before I could say a word, this EXTREMELY LARGE man, standing there in spandex hockey shorts, shower shoes, huge tattoos on each leg, another one of the Pittsburgh Penguins logo on his bicep (now matched on the other bicep by a HUGE tatoo of the Pittsburgh sky line), walks over to me, gives me his business card and says, "I'm starting a new team out in Reston. You're on it."

Lowell didn't ask me if I wanted to play on his team. He didn't ask me my schedule. He didn't ask me anything except what number I wanted on the jersey he had already ordered for me.
Apparently, his stick work was just Lowell's little way of introducing himself.

Lowell is the type of guy who is on a first name basis with everyone, whether he knows that person or not. His run-ins with people famous and not-so-famous always include a near-act of violence or, at minimum, a heated argument that involved him nearly reaching for the Glock he (legally) carries in the glove box of his Explorer truck, which has a vanity plate reading, "2-4-RFFING." I don't know if he carries a gun on his motorcycle, which has a vanity plate reading, "JGRSUX." Those disputes usually involve a threat to run someone over with his bike, or just simply strangle them with his bare hands.

Like this:

"Hey, man, I told Osama Bin Laden not to bring that shit around here, and he's, like, look, Lowell, you're not the one I have a problem with, and I'm like I don't give a shit . . . "

"Anyway, man, I ran into this waitress from Hooters who was like, 'Hey Lowell, where you been, and I'm like talk to my wife she won't let me out." Of course, Lowell has a VIP card for Hooters, which he has used to treat me to that establishment's fine cuisine.

I've now played with Lowell on four teams over five years, one of which we co-captained. He helped me coach my son's teams for two years, and the initial apprehension of an 11 year-old seeing Lowell skate toward him in a checking drill quickly went away after he realized that Lowell's bark doesn't have a bite to match. Remember that guy I mentioned at the beginning, the nice guy who would do anything for you but turns into a psycho when he puts on a jersey and steps onto the ice? That person is Lowell, except he just thinks he's a psycho. A friend of mine said you go through three stages before you figure out Lowell. The first is fear; the second is a nervous laughter; the third is just laughter. Although to the untrained eye he comes across as a hybrid of Ogie Oglethorpe from "Slap Shot" and John Goodman's character, Walter, from "The Big Lebowski, in reality, he's one of the nicest, most generous people you could ever hope to meet -- in hockey world or outside of it.

* * * * * * * * * *

That is really the best part of all this -- meeting people that you would never meet in your ordinary personal and professional circles. Your first adult hockey team is sort of like that first experience in your freshman dorm . . . where else would I meet a firefighter, a plumbing salesman, the journalist who wrote the Washington Post story on adult hockey (who now plays on my team), the team dentist of the Washington Capitals, our local Bronx-born bagel tycoon whose harassment and abuse of everyone and everything, including his customers ("You suck, Ivers!") fails to mask an open and always giving heart, guys running businesses out of their houses so they can take care of their kids, civic activists like Paul McKenzie, a teammate and friend who passed away last March from pneumonia, Charles Duelfer, the lead investigator for the C.I.A. who wrote the report concluding that Saddam Hussein did not possess WMD and many, many others from different walks of life. Academia is a bubble in which I have never been comfortable. Hockey not only is a great game and a great workout. It is a great leveling force that reminds you that what we do professionally doesn't make us better than anyone else, and that a guy who sells burglar alarm systems isn't really that much different from an attorney billing $700 per hour. You can either skate, defend, pass and score, or you can't.

* * * * * * * * * *

I have had three orthopedic surgeries since I started playing hockey five years ago -- one to repair a completely torn rotator cuff, an injury I waited nine months to treat because I didn't want to miss the winter season; one to repair a torn meniscus; and, most recently, one to repair my right pinky finger. I waited to schedule that procedure until my team had an off-week so I wouldn't miss a game. I've also had two E.R. visits for severely bruised ribs. My non-hockey friends always ask me if my latest injury means I'm through playing. My hockey friends ask me how long I'll be out before I can play again, which is the only right question to ask.

* * * * * * * * * *

I did an abbreviated stint with a team one summer that I thought consisted of pretty normal guys. I didn't have to run the team, just play, so I figured playing on an extra team would be fun.

Not so.

I had my first suspicions when the "captain" started bringing a stop watch to games to time individual shifts. I had set aside my earlier qualms about his excessive interest in our uniform design, who would get what number, how our relegation to a certain line would be based on our individual "productivity," and other such behavior more consistent with ten year-olds than adult men. I thought it was kind of odd that a couple of players -- the ones right out of college -- took beers with them to the bench, or that one guy habitually confused the direction we were skating offensively and once shot on our own goalie, but nonetheless stayed in our boss's good graces, or the retired Marine on our team who ended up in a fight or near-fight every game, but nonetheless addressed everyone as "sir." But I put those concerns aside and just skated my shifts . . . when the boss, who was by far the worst player on the team and maybe the entire league, deemed I had earned one.

What led to leave this team after the summer was our boss's decision to take the 20 year-old kid on our team to small claims court because he hadn't paid for his jersey and socks. Anybody else would have divided the cost of the jersey and socks by the rest of the guys on the team and chipped in for him. Not this guy. I got the hell out of there -- and took Lowell with me.

* * * * * * * * * *

My team is the Red Army. Our jerseys are replicas of the old Soviet teams that dominated world hockey until the Canadians and Americans started sending their professionals to play in the Olympics and other world-wide tournaments. We even have our names in Cyrillic on the back. A hockey friend told me once that was a nice touch, making our jerseys more authentic. I told him that wasn't the point. Rather, if no one could read the names on the back of our jerseys, no one could point out by name how bad we were.

I serve as captain of our team, which doesn't really mean anything when you have 15 guys -- and one especially -- who all think they should be in charge. Being captain means you serve as banker, general manager, player rep to our league board in the event that someone wants to file a grievance against another team or allege some undetected criminal infraction against another player and team mother, nurturing prima donnas who demand a "real" play-making center rather than, oh, I don't know, me. My most recent team has been together for almost two years, and we get along very well, having only had one real "crisis" during that time. That involved having to get rid of our goalie, who, while fundamentally a nice guy, turns into a complete nut job on the ice. When the player that leads your team in penalty minutes is your goalie, it's time to make a change.

Most of the guys who play on my team also coach their kids. We also have some single guys who volunteer their time to coach local high schools or teams in my son's hockey club. Guys like me benefit from meeting guys like Adam, one of the best players on our team, who is one of those single guys who gives his time to kids for no other reason than he loves the game and has the skills to teach it. Or Alan, a great player with the knowledge to match, and genuinely cares about seeing the lesser of us get better. And there is, of course, Jay, our resident "hockey whore" who will play anytime, anywhere and for any team as long as there is someone to pass him the puck. Despite his constant unflattering assessments of my playmaking abilities, I forgive him because I think his wife is absolutely gorgeous -- almost as gorgeous as mine -- and don't want to get on her bad side.

Sometimes, all this knowledge is not so good, since it can give the "coaches" the impression that they know more about the game than we -- I mean, they -- do. On the other hand, it's good, as playing a game we also coach reminds us on a weekly basis how hard hockey is to play, much less play well.

Our team plays in a league that is not affiliated with any of the major companies than run adult hockey in North America. We're basically a co-op, managing our own affairs and purchasing our own ice time. "We" is a bit of a stretch. The Ice Pack Hockey League is really the brainchild of one person, Gary Rosenfeld, who, like, Lowell, is the only other person that everyone knows by his first name. Gary isn't at all like Lowell, except for the fact that they both have hearts that far exceed their bodies' physical capacities. Gary modestly says that we are a collective enterprise, but everyone knows that Gary does everything for us -- organizes the schedule, makes sure that teams pay their dues, counsels teams to get certain players under control, resolves disputes and provides us with some of our best spent time of the week -- and asks only that we try to act like grown-ups when we're on the ice.

I'm not the oldest guy on my team this time, and I don't think I'm the worst either -- two good things. Even though we are a laid-back team by adult hockey standards, we have our share of characters. Leading the way are our own "Hanson Brothers," Elan and Eli, by far the best
players on our team. Of course, it helps that they are under 30 and can still skate more than
four shifts without feeling the need to throw up. I met them when they joined my team, sight unseen, for our first season two years ago. It took them a couple of months to realize that "no-check" hockey meant "no-check" hockey (although there are plenty of people who "have trouble stopping," but that's a different story). For a while there, I kept expecting to walk in the locker room and see them playing with their slot cars. Once it kicked in that this was hockey for old guys (I'd say the average age of guys playing in our league is about 45. The range is 21-65), they adjusted their game and became model citizens. Sure, they are great players by rec hockey standards, but the best thing about them is their personalities. They know they're stuff and always have something constructive to say without being obnoxious. Having young guys around makes things more fun, and forces you to try a little harder so you won't embarrass yourself in front of them . . . sort of like covering your bald spot and sucking in your gut when you see a pretty young girl, even though she is oblivious to you.

And then there are the rest of us . . . the guy who wants to get the rink a little early so we can discuss "strategy," but usually arrives five minutes before the game, the addict who keeps track of his plus-minus statistics, knows who every other player is playing at every level in every league in the DC area, and is the first to eyeball ringers ("I know that guy plays for the Zodiacs in the Laurel league. He's an A player. Find out if he's registered.") brought in to upgrade a team, the guys who work on Capitol Hill who take their Blackberrys to the bench and check their messages between shifts, the guy who won't take a shower after the game, the guy who reminds everyone that he was president of his law school class, the token Republican whose enthusiasm for guns and other weapons of violence immunizes him from the abuse that regularly flows back and forth in the locker room, the "specialist" who only plays left wing and the guy who keeps insisting that every game is his last one, something he has been doing for two years. For a while, we had a team doctor, although, as an OBGYN, that didn't do us much good.

Elan just left us to move to New York. We'll find someone else to take his place but there is no way anyone can replace his personality. I'm not sure what it says when a bunch of 40-something guys are hanging their heads because they're really going to miss hanging around with a 26 year-old guy on Tuesday nights at midnight.

But . . . we still have Lowell.

* * * * * * * * * *

The most remarkable thing about the whole adult hockey madness is that, with just a few exceptions, everyone is out to have a good time and not cause any problems. A few months ago, the hockey club our kids play in, Montgomery Youth Hockey, held its now-annual "Coaches Tournament." Translated, our club donated some ice time to the coaches who donate their time during the year to coach kids. Gary, of course, drew up the teams and organized the event and we skated for about two consecutive hours with only a minimal break between periods and games. Our skill levels varied wildly, from the most novice player to the guys who played junior or minor league hockey, and played it pretty well. But once the better players got an idea of who could or couldn't do what, they adjusted their games to get everyone involved. Naturally, the only meltdown came from the goalie who used to play for my team, and by that time I had put on waivers.

Then, in something that would never happen in any other sport, we all lined up at center ice after the games were over and went through the traditional post-game handshake line that is unique to hockey. No referees or "league officials" were there, no league officials, no one, really, except a bunch of guys whose best days, to the extent we ever had any, were way behind us. Isolated moments of confrontation were quickly forgotten, and smiles and laughter replaced the sometimes-too-intense attitudes that we have on the ice. No one "made" us shake hands. We just did it because that is what you always do.

Besides, there was beer on ice in the locker rooms waiting for us. And in the world of table top hockey for grown-ups, that is all that ultimately matters.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Summer encore, III

Tuesday, January 15, 2008
OMG! Like, the semester has SO fucking started!

(Note: I have to admit . . . I like this one, too. In the words of Homer Simpson, it's funny because it's true).

Tick . . . tock . . . tick . . . tock . . . tick . . . tock . . . tick . . . tock . . .

so went the clock until it reached 9.55 a.m., January 14th, 2008. And that could mean only one thing . . .

Like, the winter -- or, like, is it spring? -- semester has SO fucking started! Really . . . totally . . . it has! And, like, do you know how I can SO totally tell? Because, like, yesterday, I was so walking across our quad to, like, I don't know, someplace or whatever, and I walked into the Mary Graydon Center and, like, I saw these two girls TOTALLY JUMPING UP AND DOWN, SCREAMING INTO THEIR PHONES . . .

"Oh, my God, you are like so standing in front of me, like five feet away, so turnaround and you'll see me!" shrieked the smitten young Uggess into her phone. "You will so see me. Look, look, oh, look you bitch. I'm right here!"

Uggess #2 spun around . . . and, "AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH! How are you? Oh, my God, there you are!!!!" jumping and jumping so high and so hard her A/F sweatpants fell out of her Uggs. Bad fashion moment, poor thing.

"This is so awesome!" said Uggess #1. "I was so going to call you, but now you're here! What are you going to do? I'm going to do nothing, maybe, like, hang out a little or I don't know. You should hang out, oh, my God, I'm so psyched to see you. Did you think about me over break because I was, like, so missing you! Can you believe the semester has so fucking started" . . . and on and on. I'm not sure if the conversation improved. How could it not?

From five feet away, Uggess #1 was talking to Uggess #2 on her cellphone, and Uggess #2 was squealing in delight that Uggess #1 had called her. From five feet away, Uggess #2 was "so psyched" that she jumped and jumped and jumped and jumped . . . . From five feet away, all this activity took place on cell phones. From five feet away, they could have talked to each other without their phones. Why didn't they?

* * * * * * * * * *

After the first five minutes of each class I met on Monday, I knew who would be the talkers that didn't have much to say, the ones who wouldn't say a word all semester but have the highest grades in the class, the ones who will inject words like "ontological," "heterosexist," "democratization," "Islamo-fascist" into their commentary, just to show their classmates they can, yet have no idea what any of those words mean, the ones who insist on raising their hands after every sentence, the ones with the persecution complex, the young politico convinced that I am promoting the political agenda of a certain candidate for whom he does not work, the ones who will gossip and say things about me like, "Did he wear that shirt last class period?" or "Dude, do you think he partied college?" or "I heard he's married to a Australian dwarf with lyme disease," or "I heard he shipped his kid off to military school" or ask me 13 times during the semester why I didn't I go to law school, do I want to run for office, did I date Sheryl Crow, do I have a Volkswagen Eurovan, was I at Cactus Cantina last Thursday do I have a gold Prius, did I hear about the changes to the SC internal memo policy or am I familiar with his position on subsidized trade with Bulgaria and, if not, would I like to read his paper on it?

I don't have a formal scientific explanation for my ability, shared, I think, by most professors, to figure out which students will behave which way. You can just tell.

One thing I still have a hard time figuring out is who the student "land mines" are among the newbies, the student who will not be totally passive during the semester, but not offer much in the way of commentary or opinion either, but nonetheless decide to get their ya-yas out on the course evaluations. Not only was yours the worst class ever, you were the worst person . . . EVER . . . for "fucking up my life, so thanks a lot, asshole!" and more, sometimes even sensual insights into your teaching method, like "you're a dick!" What angers these students so much that they feel compelled to write comments like that? Is it any wonder that so few faculty, once they've gotten tenure, take the course evaluations seriously? Why should they? The students don't.

The idea that a student can evaluate a class in 10 minutes on the last day of the semester is utterly and completely ridiculous. Evaluation means a thorough assessment of the planning, intellectual content, goals, and approach of a particular course and the professor who taught it. In those 10 minutes, a student is not capable of offering that kind of assessment. One question in particular always amuses me: "The professor was knowledgeable."

How does someone 19 or 21 years old with 12 weeks of a course behind him or her know if the professor was knowledgeable? Honestly, put me in Intro Biology or Finite Math for a semester, and there is no way in hell that I could tell you if the professor was knowledgeable. For all I know, she could be a Nobel Prize laureate or some yokel off the turnip truck who never made it much past the one-room schoolhouse he attended with his 7 year-old son -- when he could get a ride, that is.

* * * * * * * * * *

Here's a new one. I stopped in the third floor men's room in the Ward building, where most of our classes are taught, after lunch on Monday. Naturally, the urinals had not been flushed because that would require too much effort. After all, you can't expect an undergraduate just returning for the start of the semester to flush the toilet and go to class and buy books in the same day, or even the same week. And I'm certain that if a student had thought about flushing the urinal he probably decided against it after concluding that a syllabus a professor had just handed him earlier in the day did not require him to do so. Yep, yep, yep! These are some of my favorite students, the ones who are preparing for careers as union negotiators or corporate attorneys ("It doesn't say in the syllabus, Professor Ivers, that we can't snort Vicodin in class. You just said that we can't eat or bring alcoholic beverages to class"), the ones always looking to beat the system rather than just shut up and do the work.

So I did what any trained parent of small children would do: I flushed the urinal before I used it.

Then I heard a voice say, "Hey, man, do you mind? I'm trying to talk."

I turned around and saw two feet under the stall. No Larry Craig action, mind you. Just some guy who was slipping in an important phone conversation while taking his afternoon constitutional.

"Hey, man, I'm sorry. Some asshole was flushing the toilet," said Two Shoe Voice Man from behind his stall door. "Anyway, I don't know, man, like, I guess you could stop by later . . ."

Did this just happen? Did some guy just tell me not to flush the urinal because it interfered with his phone conversation? While sitting on the damn toilet? In a public restroom?

So I did what I had to do. I flushed the second urinal. Then the first one. Then the second one. Then the first one. Again and again and again.

"What the hell are you doing, asshole? I can't hear a damn thing."

Since he wasn't in a position to take me on, I flushed the urinal again. Then I flushed them both at the same time.

"Why are you being such as asshole, dude?"

I gave him the only answer I could.

"Because I have tenure!" I told him.

"Oh, shit," he said.

"Oh, shit is right. Don't forget to wash your hands."

* * * * * * * * * *

Faculty received an email the weekend before the semester started informing us that we could "bluecard" students into our classes if we had extra seats in the classroom, even though our class sizes are set by the registrar. For example, if my class is set at 35 but I'm teaching in a room that holds 50, I can add up to 15 students without pissing off the Fire Marshall.

Not me. I enroll to the class size and that's it. I don't allow blue cards because if I allow one I have to allow them all. I got this idea, by the way, from Justice Scalia, who opposes exemptions for religious believers to laws that apply to the general population. Give one exemption, says Nino, and you have to give one to anyone that wants one, and that leads to bad policy and favoritism. I never thought I'd say this but he's got a good point.

Like many decisions on class size and room choice, this decision has a mysterious origin. No one I've talked to seems to know whose idea it was. Students apparently got wind of this, as I have been inundated with emails informing me that "I know you have 13 seats available in your classroom" or "I'll really try" or "My friend says I should take your class" or "If I don't take your class I can't graduate in May" or "You can pick on me. I can take it!!!!" Doesn't matter. No blue cards. The university tells our incoming students that we pride ourselves on small class size. I feel morally compelled to honor that commitment.

No blue cards. Not now. Not ever.

* * * * * * * * * *

Here and there, someone will ask me if I watch a particular television show or if I've seen a new movie or listened to a new record by a band, usually with a name like, "Belly Button Skank Sisters," or what I thought about some politician's most recent speech on greenhouse emissions by GM trucks. My answer is pretty standard: if there is something I don't like I don't watch or listen to it. I don't understand people who sit through horrible programs or movies, read bad books, spit their coffee on newspaper columnists they find outrageous or idiotic or listen to terrible recordings just so they can say how bad they are. We have more than a few students, and perhaps faculty and staff, that don't share that view.

Why, for example, do students not enrolled in your classes make the time and effort to post nasty comments about you on these "I Hate My Professors" websites? Why do people you've never taught do the same? Why do professional colleagues leave comments, thinking they're anonymous, on websites or blogs that point out how stupid or inferior you are when they could just pop their head in your office and say, "You know, I think you're really stupid and I'm really smart." Why do people do this when you never done anything to them? It really makes you wonder about what is going on in someone's life that they're willing to spend so much time pointing out your deficiencies.

* * * * * * * * * *

After my last class on Monday, I overheard a student taking it -- and me, for the first time -- say that he was "going to get me" just to prove I wasn't "all that."

Why do students view the learning process as adversarial? Why can't an undergraduate, supposedly in college to expand his or her horizons, grasp that a professor who asks them questions they can't answer should think or read a little bit more so that, next time, he or she can better engage a discussion. I've never tried to make a student "look stupid." Is it really my fault if I ask students to explain why they believe the Constitution permits someone to do X or Y and they can't?

By the way, I don't think I'm "all that." Never interpret my enthusiasm for teaching and trying to get students to realize and maximize their intelligence as thinking I'm "all that." Never interpret my interest in trying to offer students something more than taking down notes as thinking I'm "all that." How can a student who never comes to my office hours, has never had a conversation with me about anything, who doesn't know me outside the 2 1/2 hours a week I spend in class him or her, believe he or she knows me well enough to think that I think I'm "all that."

Or that I don't.

By the way, good lucking "getting" me. Just tell me where you'd like to be buried.

* * * * * * * * * *

Two of my three classrooms on Monday did not have chalk. But they were all wireless.

Whup-de-doo!

* * * * * * * * * *

Memo to students who tell me they can't afford books for class: You shouldn't tell me this while you're wearing $600 worth of designer clothes. If you can afford Juicy Couture, a North Face ski jacket, multiple pairs of Uggs, Cole Haan stilettos, tailored leather jackets or Armani loafers, you can pop for a $75 textbook.

* * * * * * * * * *

Have a good semester. And remember, all the stories you've heard about me are true.

Unless they're not.

Summer encore, II

Wednesday, July 8, 2008
Out of it

(Note: I got inspired to write this after a friend and debated whether younger people call us "sir" because they have good manners, or because they think we're old. Guess what we concluded?)

Maybe . . . just maybe, it was returning home from a weekend in New York City two weeks ago to find an unsolicited invitation from the AARP addressed not to my 247 year-old father-in-law, the man who came for a weekend three months ago, then started having his mail forwarded to my house, then unpacked the four trash bags of clothes he brought for the "a few extra days," then scheduled an elbow-replacement procedure, refused to share his Vicodin and turned the house into a museum of discontinued grooming products, which he alternately used and snorted as part of his "physical therapy."

. . . no, not to the old man, but to me . . . to join the ranks of America's largest advocacy group for the "50+ generation," the "baby-boomers" who have raised their children and begun to turn their attention to their financial, health and leisure "concerns and interests." To make matters worse, the AARP was kind enough to include a membership card that, upon my official decision to join the Gray Panthers of the world, it would activate so that I could enjoy all the benefits that come with -- and there is really no other way to put this -- being old.

"Congress overrides Medicare veto," the AARP website tells me in its "Breaking News" section. Medicare? Now? For me? In the abstract, I was all about Medicare and any health care program that provided coverage to seniors or anyone else for that matter. Then my father-in-law came to town, trash bags of clothing, Sanka, Brylcream and his portable Torah in tow. So I have since changed my mind. Medicare ruined my spring and summer. Yes, thanks to Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society, my house smelled like mothballs for three months and my bathrooms are unsafe for human use.

But that's not the real issue. No, no, no. Rather, how did the AARP find me, and how does it know that I am, well, completely out of it, a feeling I've had for sometime now, that its fortuitously timed letter only confirmed?

* * * * * * * * * *

This morning, I did something I rarely ever do: flipped through the "Style" section of the Washington Post to check the TV listings. I wanted to see if anyone was re-broadcasting last night's Major League Baseball All-Star game so that I could watch the parts of the game I missed. No such luck. But I did learn that some show called "Project Runway" is beginning its fifth season, or something like that, today or tomorrow or later this week or at some point. I also learned that some show called "Nip & Tuck" was coming to a "dignified" end after three seasons but that some other show that I have never heard of featuring actors I don't even recognize from "Us Weekly" or "Life & Style" at the grocery check-out line was . . . phew! . . . being renewed.

True confession: I've never heard of "Project Runway," "Nip & Tuck" or the other show that was being renewed. In fact, I've never heard of pretty much any of these shows that seemed to have "captivated" so many viewers. "Captivation," you should understand, is really a polite way of saying that "viewers" have made these fictional characters and the worlds they inhabit real. I refer to this malady as "Cheers Syndrome," named after the popular television show of the 1980s and early 1990s, which was set in a fictional bar in Boston. I was astonished at the number of people who actually believed Cheers existed, and that Sam, Diane, Frasier, Coach, Woody, Carla, Norm and Cliff were all real. Yessiree, I knew people, who were not at all stupid, who would return from a trip to Boston pissed off that Cheers didn't really exist, that they just superimposed a name over a small corner bar in Boston and made it Cheers. Many of these same people later returned from New York pissed off that they had been unable to locate a really cool apartment overlooking Central Park on a coffee shop worker's salary or just hang around all day with impossibly personable and attractive people with no discernible employment or means of income. Sadly, they discovered, fictional places and people are just that . . . fictional.

Outside of a few shows I've watched over the past 10 or 15 years or so, like "The Simpsons," "The Sopranos," "Curb Your Enthusiasm," and now, "Madmen," I don't have a clue of what's on television. Occasionally, I'll meet someone who'll say, "You're kidding, you mean you've never seen __________?!?" as if somehow I missed the nuclear alert that went off while I was shaving or waiting for my daughter to emerge from the dressing room at Old Navy. I can say I am familiar with "iCarly," "Hannah Montana," "The Suite Life of Zach and Cody," and much of the other fare from the Disney Channel. I am somewhat familiar with the programming on the channels featuring "Dirty Jobs," "How Things Work," and shows about gangsters going to etiquette school. These are shows my children watch, too often for my taste. I've learned what they're called so I can be a more effective parent. So, rather, than say, "Turn that crap off and come upstairs," or "Turn that crap off NOW! and set the goddamn table," I can yell, "Goddamn it! Unless Hannah Montana is joining us for dinner, turn that thing OFF . . . NOW!" Funny enough, I only have to yell at my almost 14 year-old son, who I catch more often than not sneaking a peek at Hannah and the other adolescent girls because he thinks their hot in the same way I thought Marcia Brady and Lori Partridge were hot.

* * * * * * * * * *

Music is worse. I've begun viewing every Tuesday, when I get my "iTunes Store" update, as sort of a pop culture multiple choice test for AARP candidates like myself. This week was a pretty good week. I know who Bruce Springsteen and John Cougar Mellencamp are because they are older than me, and I spent more time than I care to remember in college defending myself against irate New Jersey-ites, like my sophomore year roommate, who considered my disinterest in "The Boss" as heretical and deserving of a violent mob-connected death. I don't have anything against Springsteen. Quite honestly, I don't understand the fuss and the iconic status accorded to him, but by no stretch do I consider Springsteen untalented and undeserving of his commercial success.

But who the hell are Shwayze, Linkin Park, Manic Street Preachers or any of these people, places, periodic table symbols or whatever on my son's iPod? Why can't contemporary pop/rock bands have normal names, like The Mamas and The Papas, Three Dog Night, Mahogany Rush or Procol Harum? Who decided that every teen-girl Disney Channel star should make an album? What is with all these horrible "boy" bands? Didn't anyone learn from Donny Osmond, Bobby Sherman or Danny Bonaduce's character on "The Partridge Family" that teen-boy stardom, like teen-girl stardom, is a one-way ticket to rehab?

Concert tickets for Hannah Montana? $80 a pop, and that's not even for the good seats. A good seat for Coldplay? That's your first year in college at a private university. Compare that with this: in 1977, I saw Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Emerson, Lake and Palmer (twice), Yes, Genesis, Rush, Jethro Tull and the Allman Brothers. The worst seat I had for any of those shows was about 25 rows back and off to the side, around mid-court (or the redline in hockey). And the most expensive ticket?

$9.50 -- the mysterious "fees," whatever they might have been then, included.

What happened?

* * * * * * * * * *

In those days, you went to record stores to buy records. There might have been a band or concert T-shirt or two. But record stores were for records. Even the big ones, like Turtles, Peaches and, later, Tower, seemed like they were operated by people who loved records. You could always tell who worked in what "department" by their looks and dress. The nerdy looking guy with black frame glasses and a white two-tone short sleeve shirt with a fat collar? Classical. A black guy or white guy with a beard and a moth-eaten sweater was the jazz specialist. And the white guys who wore Dingo boots, wide belts with bell bottom jeans and a flannel shirt no matter what the weather was outside were the rock guys. By the end of the 70's, when electronic music was in its infancy, the skinny white guys who looked like they had been locked in a basement for the better part of their adolescence, usually with long, greasy hair with a part slightly off center, were the guys who knew all about Kraftwerk and all that other crazy German shit. In those days, I thought I wanted to work at a record store. Really, what could be better? You spent all day or night listening to music over a great sound system while posing as an expert on this or that recording. I imagined myself saying things like, "That's a great record from Bill Evans's trio with Eddie Gomez, but you really need to start with the 1961 Village Vanguard recordings. Here, I'll get them for you." And off I'd go, leading some grateful, impressed person to the bin with the words, "BILL EVANS" in black magic marker on a white hardboard. My customer would be appreciative and promise to send his or her friends to see me. I'd be cool -- working in a record store, getting discounts, impressing people and cultivating an image as someone knowledgeable about jazz without being snobby. "Hey, are you the jazz guy," a new customer might ask, having come to the store on the recommendation of a friend. "Can you suggest a Coltrane album to start off with . . . I'm kind of new to jazz." That would be me, dressed casually in jeans and a V-neck sweater with T-shirt underneath, with no need to play any other part than me. "Absolutely," I'd say. "Let's get you started with "Blue Train," and "My Favorite Things," then come back in a week and we'll move up." Within a month, I'd have them listening to post-1965 Trane and loving it.

Now, there are no more record stores. Wal-Mart is the nation's largest retailer of recorded music. Who in their right mind wants to wear that blue vest and spend their days saying, "Yes, the new Justin Timberlake CD is available for $8.99, right next to the $4.99 folding lawn chairs, one aisle over from the automobile accessories, where you can also find NASCAR decals." Not me. Besides, on my one career trip to Wal-Mart, made necessary when I was traveling from Buffalo to Niagra-on-the-Lake three years ago, I browsed through their "music" section (force of habit). Not only did the store not carry a single band or musician that I had in my own collection -- the Beatles excepted -- I'd never heard of most of these bands. I'd never heard of any of what seemed to me the pre-pubescent boys and girls whose cardboard images dominate the Big Box stores I shop in from time to time. "Who the hell are these people?" I ask myself. Am I that out of it?

Yes. Detour here . . . my kids wanted to watch the VH1 Tribute to The Who tonight. Great! What better way to celebrate shabbat. My son told me that The Who would be starting the proceedings and that I "wouldn't want to miss it." So there we were, waiting for one of the 3 or 4 most influential bands in rock history to hit the stage, minus, of course, their original bass player and drummer . . . all the while seeing product placement ads for shampoo and cell phones.

And who did we get? The Who? Not quite . . . we got Incubus, The Flaming Lips, some horrible band that didn't get formally introduced but played to self-parody that made Spinal Tap look like the London Philharmonic and some other clowns whose versions of some of the greatest songs ever were so God-awful bad that I felt embarrassed for them. But not my kids? "Incubus is awesome," insists my son. "Dad, these bands are good," says my nine year-old teen-age daughter. "You're just so out of it you don't know any better."

Out of it. I hear that a lot these days.

* * * * * * * * * *

Two weeks ago I learned, courtesy of People magazine while standing in the checkout line at Giant that Hulk Hogan's once-perfect family is falling apart. I thought about this for a minute and asked myself, "Didn't Hulk Hogan have a couple of glory moments in the 1980s and make a few cutesy children's movies as sort of the big gruff guy who wouldn't hurt a fly . . . or a child?" Then I thought some more. What was his schtick before he became an actor? Was he a celebrity bodyguard or something? I honestly didn't know. I must have been talking out loud and the teen-age cashier must have heard me.

"Are you serious? You don't know who Hulk Hogan is? Even my dad does," he counseled.

"While kind of," I responded. "I just don't know what made him famous."

The cashier gave me one of those exaggerated looks that actors do in movies when they hear piece of shocking news -- eyes pushed out, mouth slightly open, one eyebrow a little bit higher than another.

"Wow," he said, half in awe, half in disbelief. "You're really out of it."

If not knowing Hulk Hogan's biography means I slowly floating out to sea from the rest of society, then I'd better learn to fish and start fires. Just because I am old enough to remember when Andre the Giant was wrestling on local television in Atlanta, and the thousands of times my friends and I stayed up late to watch Georgia Championship Wrestling on Saturday nights until our station "signed off" at 1 a.m., and that I can remember when the local stations would play the Star-Spangled Banner with an American flag flapping in the background before they went dark . . . does not mean I am out of it or old.

Or does it?

* * * * * * * * * *

Is it possible to go anywhere without being made to feel like an idiot for not wanting to save 20% on whatever purchase I make from whatever store that is selling something I need or want. I don't think so.

I was at Target earlier today, my fifth such trip there this week, attempting, with only sporadic success, to get my son ready for sleepaway camp next week. Since he's going to a "Jewish" camp, the list of necessities -- and duplicates and triplicates of those necessities -- is endless. God forbid a Jewish child might encounter something hostile in the outdoors like, say, some tree bark or, worse, dirt. I was returning items deemed unacceptable by the Fresh Prince of Bethesda. After a surprisingly quick return transaction, I decided to buy some mints on the way out. I don't think I've ever gotten out of Target for less than $50, but this time it was to happen. All I wanted was one little, tinsy box of Tic-Tacs.

"That will be 94 cents please," said the bubbly cashier. "Would you like to save 20% by opening an account with us?"

"No," I said. "I'd much rather pay as much as I can as often as I can. I don't want to save 20%. Is there anyway that I can pay 20% more by using my Costco card?"

"You'd be surprised how many people do want to pay more! I believe you!," she said. "But it's your choice and your 20%."

"Let me ask you a question, and answer me honestly," I responded. "Do you really think it makes sense to open a charge account at Target so I can save 20% on an 89 cent box of mints?"

"Well, you could go buy something else and save money that way!"

"How am I going to save money by going and buying stuff I don't need? Isn't not spending any money at all better than saving 20% on a higher amount."

"But what if your 20% saves you so much money that what you bought is free?"

Enough. By this point, I thought I was being set up. Even I know that 20% off any amount will not get you to zero.

"I guess you have a point there." It was time to concede. "But the real issue is that people like me get tired of being asked whether we want to save money and then be treated like the village idiots for not wanting another credit card, or being asked for my zip code when that has absolutely nothing to do with buying a phone recharger, or having a grocery store insist of giving it my phone number so I can get the "Bonus Card" price on items that, in the old days, were on sale that week anyway. It's just really annoying not to be able to buy anything without having to face a door-to-door salesman at the check out line."

She seemed sympathetic. "I can totally understand where you're coming from," she said. "They make us do it." Do they? Who knew? But then came the finisher. "There's no way I would let a door-to-door salesman in my house, even if he was selling cheap mints." She said this very-matter-of-factly, making it clear that no one, least of all some guy selling Tic-Tacs, was getting past her front door.

This lovely young girl could have only one thought while talking to me: are you senile, stupid or just out of it?

Hmmm? I really thought I had a point.

* * * * * * * * * *

"Is it always this loud in here," I asked the 16 year-old "associate" at some mall store the other day, when I was returning items deemed unacceptable by Bethesda's most discerning and demanding nine year-old fashionista.

"Oh, I don't know," he said, smiling. "I guess you kind of get used to it."

"I don't think I could. I mean, this is really loud and distracting. Besides, this band sucks."

"You sound like my dad," he said, laughing. "Every time he comes in here he tells me I'm going to go deaf working here. And I always tell him that I've got a few years to go before I'm old and deaf like him."

"Your dad can't be much older than me," I said. "I doubt he's deaf. He probably just finds it annoying like me."

"Yeah, you're right. But all the stores play music like this. Don't you go to any of the other stores in the mall," he asked.

You know what, I thought. I really don't. I usually sit on a bench while everyone else takes care of their business. Sometimes I'll get coffee. Beyond that, I stay the hell away from mall stores, especially since Brookstone stopped letting people kill time in the massage chairs.

"No, I really don't."

"It's been going on for years," he said. "You sound like my dad. He has no idea what's going on around here either."

"Waddaya gonna do?" I offered, throwing up my hands. "I remember when small, medium and large meant 8, 12 and 16 ounces. Now, most soft drinks start at 16 ounces. In the old days, you could not order a 12 or 16 ounce cup of coffee anywhere, much less in every other storefront in the United States. I guess I'm just out of it."

The kid laughed again. "That's exactly what I tell my dad."

Huh. He must have stolen that line from someone in my house.

* * * * * * * * * *

Back in those days. In the old days. How many times I have caught myself prefacing some stupid story with those words, as if they mean the same thing as when my relatives used them to tell me their tales of woe while I was growing up.

In modern American Jewish folklore, using the phrase, "In those days" denotes some hardship that they endured in the formative years, only to overcome it and become the tremendous success they are today. "In those days," I'd hear, "we didn't have a toilet in our apartment. We'd have to go down the hall to the communal shitter and do our business there. That's just how it was. Now, no one's happy unless there's a toilet in every room, and at least one has to have that little spritzer that tickles your tuchus. Different time."

Yes, it was. We had a minimum of two and sometimes three full bathrooms growing up, so I never got to experience those Brady Bunch moments when the kids start fighting ("How come Marcia gets to go before me? How come Marcia can stay in the bathroom and come her hair and I can't even take a shower before my biggest date ever?" You know the answer to that question, Jan. Marcia was hot and you didn't blossom until the show had jumped the shark with the arrival of that bizarre-looking lost nephew whose name escapes me. That's why Marcia ruled.) over who gets the bathroom next. But I notice I'm using the phrase to describe everything from the hardships of TV watching "back in those days" -- you had to get up to turn the channels, unless you were at a rich friend's house who had a remote, which looked like and weighed as much as a brick -- to the cost of entertainment "in the old days." And I notice now I'm starting to get looks from people, even people I know well, when I use these phrases to explain something about how the world worked in 1978 or 1986 or even 1990. One story I tell that younger people have a hard time believing is how bars, "back in those days," used to keep plastic cups by the doors so that patrons could use as "travelers" for the ride home. Yes, bars used to encourage their customers to drink and drive. True. Can you imagine anything more stupid than that, other than archaic drug laws that can put dope smokers and dime-bag peddlers away for years while turning drunk drivers back on the roads year after year? Proof again that the good old days weren't always so good.

* * * * * * * * * *

Did I ever think it would reach this point, where the music is too loud, the food too spicy, the channels of communication too complicated to keep up with (Got the "you don't have an iPhone!" lecture the other day from my children after hearing a similar one the day before from a neighbor), where I was nostalgic for TV shows I can remember watching, when I can remember going to concerts (and professional sporting events) for less than $10, when not everything for children and their parents was hyper-organized, where you weren't expected to return an email in less than 5 minutes before being brand as rude and inconsiderate, where students actually consulted with you before they decided not to take an exam or turn in assignment, where the news wasn't on 24 hours a day, when you were the one being threatened with haircuts and military school rather than doing the threatening.

As I watch society "move forward" and "progress," I can't help but wonder if being out of it isn't such a bad thing.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Summer encore

One of the fun things about maintaining a blog is discovering whether the pieces you write that you think people would read and like are, in fact, the ones they actually do read and like. I will return next Monday to new material for my blog. Until then, to celebrate the end of summer and the return to school (ugh!), I will "re-run" the five most popular pieces -- in ascending order -- I've written since January 1, 2008. Funny -- none of the pieces I'm reposting is one I would have thought would have been popular.

* * * * * * * * * *

Wednesday, July 8, 2008
My Life in 37.2 gigibytes

(Note: I've added 5.6 gigibytes to my life since I wrote this in early July 2008).

All done.

My life is now officially inventoried and compressed, for the digital age, into 37.2 gigibytes. Every piece of recorded music I own is now on my iPod. Like some people and unlike most others, I don't see and hear music as just something that pleases the senses, sooths the soul, unleashes the erotic, communicates aural beauty through sound and makes me wanna holler.

Or cry. Or laugh. Or remember. Or wonder.

For me, my music collection is the running narrative of my life. The iPod revolution has only made that narrative more present and vivid than ever. As a kid, I couldn't take music anywhere. In a car, you were dependent on the good will of the driver to find a good spot on the dial and stay there. At the pool, what you heard depended on what the phase the lifeguards were in at any given moment, or who liked whom and wanted to make an impression by picking the radio station. Then, almost overnight it seemed, everyone owned a Sony Walkman, the way now that everyone owns an iPod. You could record music onto cassettes and take your music anywhere you wanted to go. After the CD emerged in the early 1980s, the portable CD player arrived along with it to allow us to take commercial and homemade CDs wherever we went, including work (well, not me; school, the library, somewhere other than an office) and pop them in our computers and listen to our own music throughout the day. Yes, the CD was even more revolutionary than the long-playing album (33 rpm) medium. But you were still limited in what you could take with you on your Walkman or Discman.

Then came the iPod. All of sudden, you could put your entire musical life on a tiny hard drive and take it with you even more places than the previous generation of portable music players. At first, this had a tremendous upside. Say I was in the mood to listen to Led Zeppelin while riding my bike to work, or to put together some outrageous mix of cheesy singles that you could buy from iTunes without anyone ever knowing and listen to it in the gym or while washing my car. I could put together a playlist of music in two minutes! Late in the evening, I could enjoy an entire homemade, handpicked Bill Evans playlist while I got caught up on paperwork, emails or decided to write something for my blog or surfed the Web looking for articles on foreign reaction to the Supreme Court's most recent term. What could be better than that?

On the other hand, suppose the shuffle feature selects, "Spirit in the Sky," by Norman Greenbaum. I bought that song about a year ago after I heard it at Giant, and it reminded me of the roller skating parties that were all the rage when I was in sixth grade. Cute, at first. Then I remembered why that song, which isn't the least bit musically memorable, registered with me: that was the song that was playing on the roller skating rink P.A. when Peggy Miller, my girlfriend and the most coveted girl at Kittredge Elementary School, withdrew her hand from mine during couples skate and told me that we were no longer going steady.

Great girl that she was and probably still is, she did say she wanted to be friends, which we ultimately did become about 15 years later, when I played on the same fastpitch softball team as her husband when I was in graduate school. But Peggy was the last girl I could honestly call a girlfriend for the next 11 years. I had many girl/friends in high school and college, and many of them did not bother taking the time to date me before they decided I was better suited to be their good friend. They skipped right over the awkward part, as if a brief glance and a forced conversation was all it took to know that I was not cut out to accompany them in any romantic context.

My iPod tells me that I have 6,732 songs recorded and performed by 864 primary artists. My artist list starts with a-ha, a band or whatever I couldn't place until I clicked the tab and heard, "Take on Me," which I remember as the first sketch-animated music video I ever saw in a movie theater. I guess I bought it after my wife and I heard it on the radio, and she reminded me of the video that we saw together at the movies shortly after we started dating. Wow! I thought. She's right. We were at the movies with some friends of ours at Lenox Square in Atlanta, way, way, way back when, a good memory of a fun night out in a much less complicated time in our lives. Then it hit me. Was that really 23 years ago? Am I that damn old? What happened? How did I end up here? Can I have some do-overs and get whatever or whoever it was I screwed up or pissed off right this time? How come I don't have as much drive or energy as I did just five years ago? What happens if universities abolish tenure? What will I do? Where will I go? Will I have to get a job doing something I really don't like because someone needs me to do something they don't want to do and have enough money to pay me to do it for them?

Perhaps you heard the song differently.

My iPod ends with with "Cheap Sunglasses," by ZZ Top, a band I never really liked during their heyday in the late 70s but pretended to because they were pretty popular in my high school. I had enough of a rep as a "weird music" guy to understand that I had to make the occasional concession to what was popular at the moment or risk complete social isolation, as opposed to the much more manageable incomplete social isolation. "No, no," I'd say, "ZZ Top is completely different than Ted Nugent or KISS. The guitar playing is much better and the rhythms considerably more complex." Now, I don't remember if that was true or not, but it got the necessary nods of approval from the wrestlers and football players I'd cross paths with when they needed an introduction to a friend of mine who knew someone who knew someone who could tell them where to get a dime bag of local ditchweed -- but not from him, of course.

Spinning the wheel, my iPod stops on Oliver Nelson, the great jazz composer and arranger from the early 1960s. After him, it's Omar Hakim, Ornette Coleman, Out of the Blue, a great post-bop band from the mid-1980s that didn't last much past an album or two, Papa Grow Funk, a New Orleans-style modern funk band, Pat Metheny, Paul McCartney (that would make for an interesting musical pairing, now that I think about it), Phil Woods, Phish, Pilot (no clue; I'll investigate), Pink Floyd and The Police. Try this sometime when you stop on an artist. Look at the five musicians/bands above the artist and the five musicians/bands below the artist. Now ask yourself why you have what will undoubtedly appear to be these very different artists within ten alphabetical places of each other. What is the common link that binds these artists and what is it that appeals about them to you? Go ahead, try it. Beats reading three-month old versions of People magazine while you're waiting to have your car serviced or killing time in a waiting room somewhere. Nothing will impress a complete stranger more than explaining why Edgar Winter, Earth, Wind and Fire, Foghat and Gary Burton belong in the same music collection.

Is it only fitting that my iPod has just given me, "Isn't it Romantic," by Bill Evans (played with Chuck Israels on bass and Larry Bunker on drums, as I prepare to finish this quirky little post that makes little sense to most sane people? Bill leads all musicians on my iPod with 627 songs under his name, so I guess that odds favor him in any random selection (assuming the selection is random and not based on listening patterns, which I'm fairly convinced it is -- based on listening patterns, that is). And how about this gem, which will be my final song during this exercise: "Penny Lane," my favorite Beatles' song and my favorite Paul McCartney composition. It should be enough to get these two personal favorites back-to-back and leave it there. But I can't help wondering whatever happened to "Peanut" Lovinger, who broke up with me at a between-fifth-and-sixth grade summer backyard party while "Penny Lane" was playing through the speaker that had been perched up against a bedroom window facing the pool. Normally, this might send me down the same road as the Peggy Miller incident. Not this time. "Isn't it Romantic?" was the song that I requested the band play when my wife and I entered our wedding reception. They did, and it was good.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

August recess

Away until September 1st. Have a good rest-of-the-summer.