When I was a little kid, I saw no good reason to go outside.

There are often plenty of reasons to stay indoors in Minnesota, but even during those perfect summer days that once made hordes of naïve and hardy Scandinavians consider the Upper Midwest an ideal place for permanent settlement, I remained in my room. My own mom, the granddaughter of a Swede and a Norwegian, would lean her stout body into my doorway and ask out of amazement, “Why don’t you want to go outside? It’s PERFECT out!”

It wasn’t just that the suffering and hard work of my forebears enabled a world of air-conditioned comfort I was unwilling to leave. Nor was it a growing identification with the Midwestern idea that the ability to withstand misery is ennobling – an ethos that explains how millions of people tolerate entities as consistently heartbreaking and stupid as the Chicago Cubs or a climate that can fluctuate between tornadoes and blizzards in under a month. No, I would have gladly sought fellowship in yet another shared misery, had anyone shared mine.

To me, a scrawny, twerpy little dweeb, outside was an unlucky assemblage of dull woe; a salad bar of reckless and pointless adversaries.

Outside, big kids drove around on bikes with mag wheels, swinging plastic baseball bats at smaller children. Scott Burt, the kid who got kicked out of fourth grade for pulling a knife on the teacher, roamed around looking for things to steal. There was a batshit-crazy fifth-grade girl who still carried the liner notes to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” everywhere she went and always tried to force boys and girls to kiss each other.

Outside there was also as much pathos as there were things to fear. There was a kid named Keith Stash, who was allowed to play in the middle of the street, and he’d be out there well past 9:00 PM, almost getting hit by passing cars as the sun and his parents gave up on him. The sight of his strange, un-abetted freedom was not enticing; it was sad.

There were also that pair of sisters who at a young age were obsessed with male genitalia. All of the male dolls they owned were stripped nude. Every time I saw them they would try to force me to take my pants and underwear off. They had no brothers and their dad wasn’t around, but because I studiously avoided them I can’t glean many insights into the realm of their preoccupation. They were outside too.

Outside is where one neighbor found a stash of male porn (completely unrelated to the aforementioned sisters, as it turned out) and where another neighbor found a stash of beer. Outside is where hit-and-run drivers killed a beautiful hunting dog named Malley and a friendly collie named Winston.

Outside was OK if it was the swingset in the fenced-in backyard or the tight front yard, shielded from the street by rose bushes, a cluster of thorns away from the unregulated freak kingdom that was my neighborhood, as I perceived it.

Of course, compared to a lot of places, where I grew up was downright idyllic. My neighborhood obviously wasn’t tough, it was just ugly sometimes, and like many ugly places, we were expected to respond to unwelcome compromises of social decency with brute force. The older kids, and many adults, expected boys to be eye-for-an-eye. Kid on a bike hit you with a bat? Stick a broom handle in his spokes! Scott Burt stole one of your Matchbox trucks? Kick his ass!

And people did kick Scott Burt’s ass regularly, with no complaint from his parents, who apparently knew the score. Ass-kicking, however, wasn’t my cup of meat either, so I didn’t fit in with the enforcers any more than the bullies. As someone who did not prefer to hit, to get hit, or hit back, I was treated like a vegan at a Sturgis pig roast.

So, I was much happier inside, filling a yellow spiral notebook with fanciful election results from the U.S. Presidential elections between 1789 and 1864. I titled this notebook “Papers From The Executive Branch.”

When I wasn’t doing that, I was probably playing with my Star Wars guys, pretending they were going to restaurants. “Hello,” I’d have Greedo the maitre d’ say to Lando the customer, “You can’t be seated until your entire party has arrived.”

“You need to get out of the house,” my mom said.

She and my dad spoke in the kitchen. They heard and understood my apprehensions about Scott Burt and all of the pervy dog-murdering Michael Jackson fans in the street at 9 pm, but were alarmed at my insular nature and lack of physical activity. For two parents in the ex-urb Middle West, they arrived at the most logical conclusion. They signed me up for soccer.

To that point, my awareness of my hometown’s Youth Athletic Association was that it sent older, more athletic kids to our door a few times year to sell us arcane local concoctions like Pearson’s Salted Nut Rolls. To me, the idea of participating in a door-to-door fundraiser was as mortifying as soccer. There was nothing about this entire experience that would be “fun.” My parents, however, were unyielding. I was going outside.

Every team in the Youth Athletic Association had a color and this year, my particular group of third-grade boys were given the black shirts. This was enough to make us “the cool team,” and for no fault of my own, I was envied as a soccer player before I even attended a practice.

That was the last time in my life anyone looked at me on a pitch, field, diamond, course, rink, or sandlot and determined I was enviable. The coach assigned me to play defense, and about thirty seconds into our first “scrimmage” (where the team practiced against itself in a stripped-down mock game) any lingering envies were permanently disabused.

Soccer fields were kind of peaceful. I liked playing defense because I could just stand there and let my mind wander, and if the ball came near me, I would just kick it to someone else or get out of the way. In the meantime, I just stared off into space and thought about things I’d rather be doing.

My mom asked me how I liked soccer, and I said I thought it was okay, except for when the ball came near me. The smell of grass and the fresh air were a tonic for the imagination but the whistles and shouting broke my concentration sometimes.

Next year I was on a much worse team, less desirable for our maroon shirts and general lack of athletic competence. As such, more of was expected of me; I was promoted to wingman, an offensive position, despite showing a marked aversion to ball-handling, passing, scoring, drive or focus during my soccer career.

There were some boys on the team who seemed to be trying much harder than me, and were doing as least as bad. The scrimmages we had did not prepare us for games. We would get walloped by scores of 7-0 and 8-1. “I’m telling my team to play their best,” I remember my coach saying. “The problem is, most of them are.”

I actually made some shots on net, but no goals. For someone who had never crossed midfield in his life, this was awesome and terrifying and surreal, like someone from the Cook Islands seeing his first ice rink one year and playing in the NHL the next. It made me a better player, I suppose, being forced to actually play all the time.

I even got a mild concussion once while attempting a header, which for me was sort of a red badge of chutzpah. I remember being knocked on my ass, staring at shapes that looked like misty neon exploding grapefruit, and the coach, who was typically of the “rub some dirt on it and get back out there” school of sports medicine, let me sit out for the rest of the game.

I found that having a sports injury gained me some measure of respect. I was also told that I’d somehow expended some degree of effort and skill on the play that sidelined me. I was amazed.

Maybe this is where the story is supposed to get treacly, and where I’m supposed to tap into a hidden reservoir of inner competence and lead my scrappy underdog team to the all-city finals. This did not happen. I did realize that enthusiasm is a decent substitute for a total lack of natural talent, and that my positive attributes (speed, quickness) in combination with the negatives (dreamy detachment, total lack of coordination) could at least be a pain in the ass to the opposing team. I could be a spoiler; I could get in the way.

By ninth grade, I was done with the charade. I had fulfilled my parents’ objectives—I had gone outside for a change—and even though I didn’t score one goal in five years of soccer, I had exceeded my own expectations. I gave up sanctioned athletic competition for what I assumed was the rest of my life. A decade later in Italy, I would be proved wrong, with a clean slate and slightly different results.

For that time, however, perhaps I had convinced the souls of my immigrant great-grandparents that they weren’t entirely wrong in trying to make Minnesota a better place for their children, and that their hard work wouldn’t be wasted in an air-conditioned bedroom. Indeed, on one of those few Midwestern days that are actually enjoyable, a nerdy little descendant of theirs who’d never have survived their Oregon Trail-style privations can go outside, past the thieves and perverts and thugs on mag wheels, get awoken from another daydream by a salvo of authorized aggression, and maybe even get a concussion amidst flowering volleys of polite encouragement.

With my face in the dirt, whistles screaming, a breeze washing through the torn grass of someone else’s perfect day, and my head filling with buttery stars, outside, at last, would be OK.

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J. RYAN STRADAL is from the second-oldest town in Minnesota. His writing has also appeared in Hobart, The Rumpus, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rattling Wall, Joyland, Trop, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, and NFL.com, among other places. He lives and writes in Los Angeles, where he volunteers with students at 826LA and sometimes works on TV shows.

22 responses to “The Shortest Possible Highlight Reel”

  1. Judy Prince says:

    This is wonderfully funny, JR! You had me laughing throughout as well as appreciating your fine writing, the way you pack those surprising one-liners into the narrative. I started to copy all those goodies in order to present them here, but they’re pretty much the entire post!

    Here are some faves, though:

    “I was treated like a vegan at a Sturgis pig roast.”

    “. . . outside was an unlucky assemblage of dull woe; a salad bar of reckless and pointless adversaries.”

    “So, I was much happier inside, filling a yellow spiral notebook with fanciful election results from the U.S. Presidential elections between 1789 and 1864. I titled this notebook “Papers From The Executive Branch.”

    “I liked playing defense because I could just stand there and let my mind wander, and if the ball came near me, I would just kick it to someone else or get out of the way.”

    “I’m telling my team to play their best,” I remember my coach saying. “The problem is, most of them are.”

    “I did realize that enthusiasm is a decent substitute for a total lack of natural talent, and that my positive attributes (speed, quickness) in combination with the negatives (dreamy detachment, total lack of coordination) could at least be a pain in the ass to the opposing team. I could be a spoiler; I could get in the way.”

    Thanks for the laughs—-the first of 2011!!!

    • J. Ryan Stradal says:

      Wow, thanks Judy. As always, I appreciate your kind notes.

      I couldn’t find “Papers From The Executive Branch” when I was back in MN last week. I don’t know if this is a good or bad thing.

      • Judy Prince says:

        “I couldn’t find “Papers From The Executive Branch” when I was back in MN last week. I don’t know if this is a good or bad thing.”

        HA! Possibly your parents have donated them to the Reagan Presidential Library, JR.

  2. angela says:

    really enjoyed this. as a kid, i normally loved going outside – traisping around in the woods, riding my bike till the sun went down, catching fireflies – except for all the nasty kids in our neighborhood.

    you capture the nastiness and weirdness of kid-dom really well. gave me flashbacks.

    • J. Ryan Stradal says:

      Angela,

      Thank you!

      Yeah, while the company line is to look upon childhood as a carefree, innocent time, I remember a lot of alienation and strangeness — things were surreal, significant, and tempestuous. It’s a smaller world, and as such, it’s more delicate. The nasty and weird, even if it’s minor-league by adult standards, is kind of a big deal at the time. Hell is, as the saying goes, other people.

      Thank you again for reading.

  3. Zara Potts says:

    Great piece and so funny!

    Man, kids are so weird. How come there’s always some weird girl that tries to get other kids to kiss each other?? They must be some kind of mutant strain.

    I always enjoy your work, and this was no exception.

    • J. Ryan Stradal says:

      Zara,

      Thank you!

      There must be one of those girls in every neighborhood. At the time, I found her demands annoying and gross. Bear in mind that little kids aren’t exactly paragons of hygiene, either; even as an adult, would you kiss someone that had just been eating Nacho Cheese Doritos? That’s the situation I was put in. Not that I was any better.

      Once again, I appreciate the kind observations!

  4. sheree says:

    I hope you have a book in print for purchase. This is the second time today on this site that I have wanted to invest in an Authors work. Thanks TNB!

    • J. Ryan Stradal says:

      Wow, thanks Sheree. In my case, not yet. Check out D.R. Haney’s book to start.

      Thank you for reading — and keep asking this question of writers.

      • sheree says:

        I’d pay plenty to read a book you’d authored.
        Your writing style captivates me. Pulls me in and keeps me there.
        Not an easy task. Thanks for having the discipline to write in the manner that you do!
        I’ll be watching for future posts from you on this site, and if you ever do publish a body of work, count me in.
        Best regards,
        Sheree

        Mr Haney is one of my favorite authors on this site. I will be reading his latest work later this month. I devoured Banned For Life. Heh and it didn’t taste like chicken! It was top shelf steak all the way!

        Cheers!

        • D.R. Haney says:

          Thanks so much, Sheree, and thanks to you, too, J. Ryan. Now: what happened a decade later in Italy? You do get around, huh?

        • J. Ryan Stradal says:

          Duke,

          Italy is another fistful of worms. I almost capped this story with that chapter of my grim athletic career, but I was fast approaching 1700 words and I can’t really sum it up in a couple paragraphs. Maybe it’ll show up here in the future. Either way, thanks for asking.

        • D.R. Haney says:

          So many things can’t be summed up in a couple of paragraphs, or else they’re too summed up too quickly. The search for material is a bit like Goldilocks testing the bears’ goods, I find. It’s got to be just right.

  5. As always, J Ryan, I love your work. This one line in particular brought a smile to my face:

    “As someone who did not prefer to hit, to get hit, or hit back, I was treated like a vegan at a Sturgis pig roast.”

    So glad you’ve found a home at TNB, my friend. Happy New Year.

    • J. Ryan Stradal says:

      Thank you Rich. I dig your latest poem by the way — another moving piece of work. The line about sweeping streets and directing traffic to enable someone’s joy is, to me, a wonderful, iconoclastic image.

      I am grateful for the support, as always. Happy New Year right back at you.

  6. Gloria says:

    But face it. You’re a neo maxi zoom dweebie… ~ John Bender.

    I love that you used the word dweeb. I’d really like to see that word make a comeback.

    The Star Wars restaurant scene is high comedy, J. Ryan (Ryan? J. Ryan? JR? J?)

    Having two eight year old boys (also third graders), I appreciate this glimpse into your young life very much. I agree that the Old West style of settling scores is barbaric and I’m happy to be raising my guys in Portland, where that type of thinking is anathema.

    Maybe this is where the story is supposed to get treacly, and where I’m supposed to tap into a hidden reservoir of inner competence and lead my scrappy underdog team to the all-city finals. This did not happen. – – -ha ha ha ha. I love that this is a real story and that you call attention to the unrealistic Hollywood ending expectation that we all sort of labor under.

    Great piece, Ryan, J. Ryan, JR, J. You’re a great story teller and a crack up. Thanks!

    • J. Ryan Stradal says:

      Gloria,

      Thank you!

      Portland seems like a fun place to raise kids … I went there for the second time last month, drank some of the best coffee and sake I’ve had in my life, biked to Powell’s and back from NE, met smart, friendly, interesting people … dang, great place. I am envious.

      Try to remember what your sons are saying when they’re playing with their toys. They may thank you someday. I didn’t actually recall the Star Wars scene you referred to — but my mom did, and told me about it years later. To me, it was probably too typical to be memorable.

      In the meantime, I’ll try to work “dweeb” into more conversations. I may inspire the word from others just by having them. One can dream.

      Thank you again for reading –

      J to the R

      • Gloria says:

        You kidding? I actually write that shit down! For instance, night before last, Indigo was explaining to me that before he was a human, he was an angel – until he fell into the code pink uterus portal. I swear to God, he said that. I’m not even remotely clever enough to make that up.

        Yes, Portland is great!

  7. Lorna says:

    This was really enjoyable to read. I felt like I was standing on sidelines of the soccer field laughing at the day dreaming kid and loving it.

    Thanks for the brief escape.

    • J. Ryan Stradal says:

      Thanks, Lorna! I know — the handful of times I’ve seen pre-collegiate sports as an adult, I instantly try to identify the most distracted and daydreamy-looking kid out there, and I cheer for them, at least internally, because I don’t want to mortify them further.

      Thank you again for reading …

  8. Mat Zucker says:

    This was hilarious, JR. Whistles are indeed, distractions and it does take great chutzpah to brave heading the ball. Good for you.

    I had to play little league baseball at some point and the only consolation was that Saks Fifth Avenue was our ‘sponsor’ so I got to wear a Saks t-shirt. Found it motivating, though I was still afraid to catch pop flies and swore that the sun was in my eye.

    • J. Ryan Stradal says:

      Mat,

      My heart goes out to you, brother.

      I also had a short-lived baseball career — with similar results. I was stuck out in right field (naturally) and found the time to mishandle what balls trickled out to me. I missed the cutoff man, let easy pop flies land in front of me, played too close to the line, too deep, too shallow, you name it. And I didn’t even get a Saks shirt.

      Thank you for reading.

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