Friday, March 29, 2013

An Unsung Bloodsport.

I walked toward the front door Thursday morning, bearing the fresh burden of the twenty-six ton man bag I'd just hurled across my shoulder. "See you tonight," I said.

"You bet you will." She stood in her bedroom doorway, looking every bit her just-woke-up teenagerness—pajama pants, one of fifty or so t-shirts emblazoned with her school's name, and the left half of her hair looking like Axle Rose's in that Welcome to the Jungle video. "March madness returns tonight," she said, betraying her non-enthusiastic appearance.

I grabbed the doorknob. "Yes, it does. Hey, good luck in your tennis match if you have one today."

"No match, just practice."

"Okay, then good luck at practice."

"No one says that, Dad," she replied, disappearing into the bathroom.

This spring is her final season of high school sports. After playing volleyball and basketball, each of which offer its own flavor of intensity, she's donning the old skort for the last time.

Ahh, tennis. It's the perfect tonic to ensure a kind and gentle ending. For the past four years, her coaches have permitted doubles teams to play together and stay together, so her partner has been her best friend the entire time.

Is it a recipe for overall team success? Probably not, but so what, they sure seem to enjoy themselves.

Sorry to get all Uncle Rico on you—again—but that ain't how things were back in my day. During the late Seventies, competition for spots on my high school tennis team was as fierce as it was moose-knuckled. We were constantly pitted against each other to determine the best combinations.

Plus, every once in a while, I had to play this guy who was so good, I seriously don't think I ever got a point off him. He had a tennis court in his backyard and his dad made the whole family play. Let's just say that kid toyed with me like a kitten nibbling a daddy long legs.

But, the weather was usually decent—by season's end you had a little bit of a tan—and our coach constantly took us out for ice cream.

However, a single overwhelming fact remains which made spring tennis the best sport of all:

It was co-ed.

Lots of cute girls.

In tennis dresses.

Sometimes they'd even show up with baked goods.

Usually ranked fifth,  I became a mixed doubles mainstay. My sixteen-year-old sensibilities were thrust into tri-weekly, ninety-minute relationships with different female temperaments. Most went well. I learned patience and how to choose my words carefully.

Even so, two ended in divorce.

About halfway through that sophomore season, I settled into a life of monogamy. The coach paired me with a freshman girl I sort of knew. We clicked immediately, mostly due to her inappropriate sense of humor and love of The Twilight Zone, but she was really interesting and smart. We became good friends and a fairly decent doubles team.

We entered the league tournament feeling pretty shaky. Neither of us had expected to compete in a varsity playoff, so we lost the first set badly, playing like our rackets were wrapped in meat. Finally, she and I settled a bit and began committing fewer unforced wood-clanking errors. We won the second set and after six games of the third and deciding set, the score was tied at three games apiece.

During the next game, as our opponents charged the net, I attempted a lob which, using tennis terminology, would be classified as weak ass. The guy on the other team rared back and slammed a laser beam—right into my partner's nose. She dropped her racket, grabbing her nose as blood dripped into her white, pleated skirt.

Her eyes welled with tears, yet her face displayed a look that wasn't one of pain as much as anger and frustration. People brought towels and ice, and then a strange adult approached us.

"You have five minutes to get back on the court or forfeit the match."

"Oh well," I thought. "We were doing great. Nothing to be ashamed of if we have to stop now..."

"I can play," she said. She moved the towel away, revealing her swollen nose and puffy eyes. "I think the bleeding is stopping."

"Really? Are you sure? " I couldn't believe it.

"Yep."

She walked back onto the court in her blood speckled clothes and settled in her previous spot, again a few feet from the net. I could tell our opponents, especially the guy, felt bad about the accident, but they also looked confident, like they'd hobbled us and intended to finish us off quickly.

Apparently, my partner had decided that since she'd committed to playing the remainder of the match with a swollen face and impressive headache, winning was the only option, since we didn't lose another game that day.

I'll bet I've told my daughter this story a million times and I'll probably repeat it a few more. That's okay. It never hurts to remember how a fifteen-year-old girl showed a sixteen-year-old boy the personification of toughness and loyalty.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Slurpee Summer of '73

The guy is sitting next to me on the Metro, not standing behind a counter. He's reading a book, not cracking a fresh roll of quarters and camouflaging himself in the green, orange and red of an American institution.

It's the same uneasy feeling I get from thinking of Batman doing his laundry. This guy is wearing a 7-11 cashier's smock. But he's not in a 7-11. It's throwing me off a little.

It just seems a little out of context. Not as much as, say, running into your third grade teacher at the Love Pantry, but you know, weirdish.

I've always been a pretty big fan of the old Seven-E, the original convenience store. Need some bread, milk and nasal spray? Got you covered.

How about a pepperoni stick with that eight pack of Crayolas?

There was a period, I'm thinking sometime during the Nineties, when 7-11 advertised hot dogs by weight, like "Try or ninety-nine cent quarter pounder hot dog."

Oh, thank heavens no.

And who can ignore the store's signature, its slushy symbol of nuclear colored refreshment—the Slurpee. Across the land, people  of all creeds have bellied up to the inexpensive wellspring of sugar, ice and toxic coloring.

Males in my hometown, often representing the three prevalent ethnicities (stoners, jocks and stoner jocks) hoisted countless toasts together under the flickering, fluorescent tubes.

Every morning that summer of 1973, I'd stumble downstairs and into the dining room to discover what my teenager brother had abandoned on the table. Salivating like a crazed basset hound, I slid along the table on my elbows, pinning my face an inch from the artist's rendering.

Sometimes it was Willy Mays or Hank Aaron. One morning Lou Piniella, his boyish head capped in Kansas City Royal blue, sat waiting for a nice rinse-out. Other mornings, duds like Richie Hebner or Steve Blass would stare back at me, but either way, I'd walk to the sink, purge the watery Slurpee Seconds from the bottom and add it to the growing queue on my windowsill.

Okay, this is where you imagine that the guy who says the next sentence is Keith Morrison from Dateline NBC.

But it wasn't until forty years later that a chilling secret was revealed.

My brother, in a rare moment of lucidity, informed me that he'd fully intended to repossess the cups that summer. The local 7-11 had been publicizing a contest where the first person to collect the entire collection of Major League Baseball Slurpee cups would win an AM radio shaped like a couple of big dice.

Neat, huh?

My brother didn't win, but finished only five cups short of the radio. He insisted that had he won the contest, he'd have snagged those babies out of my room like a prison guard who'd just pulled the lid off a toilet full of raisin jack. Our fragile peace would have splintered and I would have been forced to wage a guerrilla war, seizing his comic books as bargaining chips in the holy war he'd chosen to incite.

No winners there, only broken lives.

Even now, an uneasy truce hovers between us. And while I trust this man implicitly with my own children, I could no more allow him around my Slurpee cups than ask Limbaugh to deliver a vanload of porn and Percocet.

That's why they're tucked safely away down in the basement. I think.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Life Happened Yesterday.

How does that time-worn old bromide go? Something like, "Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans."

True that.

As much as we try to segment and sort or lives, as resolved as we are to organize and prioritize the scripts, every once in a while, something unforeseen slaps us upside the old coconut. Here we are, gliding down life's buffet line, and we draw even with that dude, his face and chef's hat beaming in the amber glow of the heat lamp. Hovering with sharp knives over a gargantuan meat shrine, he smiles and asks which cut we prefer, then ignores our request and spanks our plate with a drippy slab of surprise.

Reality roast—rare.

My cell phone vibrated as I rode the bus home yesterday, blissfully reading my eBook with my surgically enhanced iBalls. My seventeen-year-old daughter's name lit up the screen, and I subconsciously perused my mental lists of reasons for her to call rather than text. Would she lobby for a certain dinner she'd been "craving all day?" Was there something she needed money for, something she'd put off asking until it reached emergency status?

It was neither.

I answered the phone. "Hi."

"Dad!" That's the only word I could decipher. She was hysterical, her voice whimpering in short, loud bursts. Now I was scared.

"Slow down," I said. "I can't understand you." The drone of the bus didn't help.

Her breathing deepened slightly and her voice lowered a notch. "I was at a stop light, and this guy rear ended me…and then he drove away…." She trailed off into sobs again.

"Okay," I said. "Just try to calm down." I needed information, and quickly. "Are you okay? I mean, physically?"

"Yeah."

"Are you sure? Does your neck or back hurt?"

"My neck hurts a little tiny bit."

"Okay, did your head hit the steering wheel or did the air bag come out?""

"No, he wasn't really going that fast."

"Good, good." Now I was the party who needed calming. Breathe. "Are you in a safe place right now, like out of traffic?"

"Yeah. I pulled onto a side street. I thought he was going to follow me, but he just backed up a little and went around me and took off…" More crying.

"Did you get his license plate number?"

"No."

"Shit," I thought.

"But I saw what he looked like and the front of his truck was smashed in."

"Okay, listen. Call 9-1-1 right now and tell them everything you saw, okay?"

"Can't you do it?"

"No, you've got to do this."

"Okay."

"Do it right now, okay? Then call me back."

As I hung up, a tiny, yet searing, dot formed in the pit of my stomach, its glow rapidly expanding until my entire muscular structure was cramped into a knot of rage. If I were to classify my emotional state at that time using the old soothing rainbow of Bush-era threat colors, I'd say it would fall one step above the red "severe" level and be officially deemed the purple "fucking pissed at this random asshole's cowardice and amoral value system" classification.

"That son of a bitch!" I thought. "I'll bet he was either drunk or texting or high or all of the above. If the cops don't find him, I will." I fantasized about what I'd do if I ever caught the guy. Again, my mind flooded with enhanced interrogation techniques utilized by our prior administration. I needed Dick Cheney like never before.

Fortunately, my bus passed the same area where the accident occurred, so I met my daughter ten minutes later, just as the police arrived. The back of the van sported an impressive new dent, its hatch now unable to open. Ever since my daughter began driving it to school, however, it's been dinged so many times in the student parking lot it more closely resembles a post-apocalyptic family assault vehicle.

As I sat next to my daughter, my anger slowly ebbed, to be overtaken by intense gratitude. "She's okay," I thought,"safe and sound. "Oh, my God., it could've been so much worse. What if…"

I stopped myself.

Parenting is like that. I'm not sure when I learned it—maybe when she swallowed a dime or broke her arm  or experienced anaphylaxis from her newfound peanut allergy.

When you love someone that much, you can't allow yourself veer into the darkness. It's hard sometimes.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Living With OCD: Not Too Shabby.

I finally had to look it up.

Look, I'm not a doctor—don't play one on TV, radio or even the occasional podcast.

The nearest I've come to adhering any semblance of the Hippocratic Oath is doing no harm to the avocados I palpate on a weekly basis at Safeway.

But the deal is, those closest to me have batted this term around incessantly over the years. Remember how, years ago an apron-clad employee would use a little gun to shoot price labels onto everything at the grocery store? Yeah, that's my family, but the gun is a Mouth-16, an oral Uzi, and when I peel off the label, the same three letters always stare back at me: OCD.

Such experts they thought they were as they watched me check the door lock three times before leaving the house. Such know-it-alls they became as I pulled my socks up before starting the car. My daughters chastised, ostracized and patronized me for being a profound, chronic weirdo.

Always one to look inward for solutions, I blamed myself and my personal character flaws before telling the little princesses to shut the hell up.

But ultimately, I steered the quest for truth outward, looking up the term on the Mayo Clinic website. This would seem like a credible source for a medical definition, no? As the youngsters might say, "Yo, Pops, that joint sports some swag."

They wouldn't say that.

Anyway, here, according to the Mayo Clinic, is the definition:

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder characterized by unreasonable thoughts and fears (obsessions) that lead you to do repetitive behaviors (compulsions). With obsessive-compulsive disorder, you may realize that your obsessions aren't reasonable, and you may try to ignore them or stop them. But that only increases your distress and anxiety. Ultimately, you feel driven to perform compulsive acts in an effort to ease your stressful feelings.

Sweet vindication, tastes so smooth with a tart self-righteousness chaser. I've got a freaking medical condition, people. Can't help myself. Bam.

This couldn't have happened at a better time. We're now living in the golden age of the small screen, when we no longer must wait a week to screen the next installment of our favorite program—

No more sitting on pins and needles for a week to see if Fonzie made it safely over the shark. Aay! Whoah! Lame!

No longer are we obliged to endure an entire summer plus an eight-week Screen Writers Guild strike to learn that Kristin, the scheming sister-in-law and mistress of J. R. Ewing, was the perp who popped two caps into his soulless torso.

Yes, if we can manage to steer clear of current offerings, the world is an oyster with a basketball-sized pearl for those of us with OCD.

First it was Mad Men. Laid up after back surgery, I burned through an entire season while bathing in the warm bathwater of prescription opiates. Soon after, Breaking Bad wrestled away the reins of my self-control like Charles Manson with a fistful of LSD and the promise of my own continent after the inevitable apocalyptic race war.

And now it's The Wire. Oh. My. God. Five seasons of awesome pie a la mode. The show has been off the air for seven years but I've never been riveted like this, which is, you know, kind of sick.

Formerly, I would post to this forum at least twice a week in a minimal effort to keep up the old writing chops. But since I've been mainlining this incredibly well-written and -performed drama, executed by a an ensemble of artists I've not before nor since viewed, I'm in danger of acquiring freaking bed sores.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is a medical condition that can strike anyone at any time. Ever wonder why it took the cardinals so long to elect a new pope, why black smoke kept spewing from the Vatican chimney?

They hadn't finished season two of Downton Abbey.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Scientific Breakthrough Connects Bad Hair to Obesity.

Over the past fifty years, pretty much since I popped the tag on my first Hostess pastry, I've been clutching a cold steel bar as it digs into my upper thigh meat. And once the carny released the lever, that thing's been locked on with no hope of escaping.

I've been an unwitting passenger on the body mass roller coaster. Having mentioned time and again in this forum my struggles with weight, I think I've finally broken through on the reason for my chronic teeter tottering between a stick bug and a blow pig. And heavens to Bertha, it's so simple.

Bad hair causes obesity. Boom.

Stick with me, here and I'll illustrate. Back in 1978, at age sixteen, I sported the feathered "butt cut"—parted hard down the center and feathered lightly to the sides like the down of a suckling chick (I just like that term even though birds don't suckle).


That's my mom on the right and my older brother on the left. This photograph portrays hair styles of the late 1970s. My mom's perm was a utilitarian option during the decade men and women alike.

My brother had recently been in a car accident and employed a utilitarian cut meant to cover the huge zipper down the top of his squash.

The accident, unfortunately, also robbed him permanently of any ability to smile for the camera gracefully.

Anyway, sorry, back to my point. My hair, while possibly a bit obnoxious if worn now, fell within the acceptable parameters of that era's bell-shaped curve. Hence, I was trim and healthy.

A few years later, my pate became a bit shorter and parted to the side, but still didn't make too bold of a statement. Hence, still slimmish and trimmish.

Pictured there is your humble bloggist pouring a nice Bartle's and James wine cooler to celebrate college graduation day. Apparently I also enjoyed really ugly ties and trying to look like a couch jumping Scientologist.












Once I ventured into the job market, I determined that the best look for my new career in fashion retail was, naturally, a mullet. But alas, as a consequence of this avant garde choice, my girth ventured into an heretofore unattained frontier.


It's hard to tell if this is actually me or a female fan whose license I found at the beer garden at Lilith Fair.













Then things got a little freaky and my hypothesis veered of the rails a bit because I was thin during this period. I decided that the "business in the front, party in the back" statement should become repurposed to "all party, all the time."


My dad looks so proud standing next to Grateful Dead there. That may look like chicken but I'm sure ponytail boy probably talked him into grilling tofuken instead that afternoon.












A few years later, the hair got chopped—not completely, just enough to look ridiculous again. Naturally, this caused me to pack on the pounds like a giblet thief on Thanksgiving.


What's the deal with the sideburns? Holy shit. That's one fugly hipster sitting next to my bride.








Finally, after years of flailing in a sea of absurdity, I went short. And, wouldn't you know it, the fat fled faster than Karl Rove from a gathering of decent human beings.

That's my daughter a couple of years ago, just prior to her regimen of human growth hormone and argue-with-anything-you-say caplets.













So, yeah, I think I've got a fairly solid thesis here, no? Every time my 'do has vacationed in Crazy Town, my abdominal and moobular regions have expanded to Limbaugh-esque proportions.

Thank God I've finally figured this thing out. I was frighteningly close to dreadlocks.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Of All the Days to Forget to Wear a Diaper.

Has it ever happened to you?

I suppose it could be referred to as an "out-of-body-experience," an occasion where your eyes and brain have floated to the ceiling and gazed with wonder upon your body's current station in time and space.

Okay, that sounds a little too marijuanically inspired. What I'm asking is, have your ever found yourself in a situation where you wondered, "Holy great grandmother of Spock, how the hell did I get myself into this?"

Some folks are naturally talented at speaking publicly. I am not. In fact, back during my tenure as a mullet-headed accountant, my manager suggested joining Toastmasters to overcome my paralyzing fear, not only of public speaking, but of just chatting with clients.

Since the accounting profession hangs its fedora on a rack constructed of trust and competence, things weren't going so hot for my shaky young self. My brain often formulated feeble, ill-advised messages my voice box bellowing froggy chirps of choppy helium-laced vowel slurs.

Profound anxiety spawned feeble and often inappropriate attempts at humor:

"Hi, Cliff, can I um, please take a look at your accounts receivable ledger? I promise I'll return with a full tank of gas. Heh, heh."

"Cliff, it looks like your fixed assets are fully depreciated. You know they have drugs for that, now."

"Hey, Cliff, unless you buy me lunch at Arby's today, I'm going to capitalize your net operating loss carryover. Kidding! I had you, didn't I?"

I joined a local Toastmasters group that met during lunchtime and gingerly dipped my toes into the tepid waters of public speaking. Speech by speech, my paralyzing fear subsided and I was able to say things that didn't leave me stammering and embarrassed.

"Table topics" became my favorite part of the meetings. Each participant is handed a piece of paper with a word or two scrawled on it and must speak on the subject for thirty seconds. It was absolutely terrifying each time, but upon finishing, provided a rush I'd not yet experienced.

Especially if I could draw a couple of laughs.

I immersed myself into the extemporaneous quicksand, participating in table topics at every meeting and entering the club competition. I won it and moved on to the district competition, which I also won.

The next step was the Area contest, held in a small theater. I stood backstage, waiting giddily, confident that I could handle any subject lobbed my way. Finally, my turn came and I sauntered out and planted myself center stage. The capacity audience fixed its gaze upon me as my breathed deeply and focused on master of ceremonies to my left:

"Tim, if you could be any vegetable, which vegetable would you be?"

Holy shit. Think, you bastard. Nothing.

What happened, Cocky McRoosterson, queried a snarky elf in my head, cat got your tongue?

I stood center stage, bleeding out. My legs felt submerged in warm butterscotch pudding, every internal organ engorged with poisons generated by my toxic silence. I had to say something, anything...

"I'd be a zucchini," I blurted out. Are you serious? asked the mind elf, did you really just say 'zucchini'? Ha, you are such an idiot. Oh well, good luck, you've only got forty-five more seconds to fill, you tool. Let's hear it.

Honestly, I don't possess any recollection of what I said for those next forty-five clicks. I hope it wasn't inappropriate considering my ridiculous choice of vegetable. Couldn't I have just said asparagus or artichoke or even tomato, the fruity cousin who hangs out with the veggies?

Nope, had to be zucchini.

That's when the whole out-of-body thing kicked in. I hovered above my quivering corpse shouting, "What the hell is wrong with you, Mr. Death Wish? You could have just participated in your little club and performed your little speeches, but no, you had be a hotshot."

My next recollection is looking out upon the audience, politely and uncomfortably clapping as I disappeared stage left. Their faces mirrored my emotions—shame, embarrassment, raw humiliation.

Driving away afterward, I resolved to never again insert myself into such a vulnerable situation. Taking risks was fine when the rewards were assured, but watching helplessly as my dignity vaporized in front of a couple hundred people? Nah, I'll wait for the next bus, thanks.

Last Friday, after twenty-five years, I finally leaped back and straddled the the bony spine of that bucking impromptu bronc. I answered a few questions as part of a live radio show. I've done a few other radio junkets, but never in real time, and never where I didn't know what I'd be asked.

"Oh my god," I thought in the days leading up to it, "what if I 'zucchini' this thing, too? What if I say something obscene or insensitive or, worst of all, nothing?"

None of that happened. And while I didn't totally kill it, at least I didn't soil myself before thousands of innocent listeners, and approached the situation with considerably less hubris.

I suppose that's a start.