becool-coverSplit Screen

We are hunkered down around the little white television we use to have.

The television was my then girlfriend Debbie’s when we were in college, and it fits our current surroundings: a somewhat dingy, much too small, yet hoping to be more, one-bedroom apartment, that is really just a studio with a wall.

It is June 17, 1994.

We are watching Game 5 of the NBA Finals, the Knicks are playing the Rockets at the Garden, and we are hoping to watch them go up 3-2 in the series.

We want this win, we are focused on the game before us, and we are not moving.

The Knicks deserve our full attention and they must have it.

This is their night.

This is our night.

splash-footballmond

I’m a big Steve Almond fan.  I think he’s one of our smartest and gutsiest writers.  His latest book, Against Football (Melville House), is surely one of the year’s most provocative titles.  Almond offers a searing analysis of America’s most popular sport, going deep where most sports writers tend to stay safely in the shallows, challenging the reader’s assumptions about what the game means, and what its massive cultural import says about our society.

Steve and I had a great conversation on my podcast1 not too long ago, and this past week I had the chance to catch up with him via email for some follow-up questions.

Dear Jeff Bezos,

Congratulations on your recent purchase of The Washington Post, one of the finest institutions in American journalism, as well as my hometown newspaper. I further applaud you for immediately speaking up and calming the speculation about what changes might be on the way for the paper. It’s comforting to know that you plan to keep the values and leadership of the Post intact.

trailer 2

My father’s farm in Virginia is called Oak Hill. When he bought it, not long after he divorced my mother, there was in fact a cluster of enormous oak trees that shaded a white clapboard, nineteenth-century house that stood on the hill in the center of the farm, but the house burned down before my father could move into it. Some of the oaks survived the fire, which occurred on a Halloween night, but despite whispers that the previous owner had torched the house, no charges were ever filed. I remember surveying the charred remains and spotting, not charred even slightly, an old board game called Why, the Alfred Hitchock Mystery Game, which, according to the blurb on the box, involved “real thinking, planning, and memory.” I took the game home with me—I lived a twenty-minute drive from the farm with my mother, brother, and sister—but I never played it, and don’t know what became of it. Maybe my memory wouldn’t be so faulty if I had better developed it by playing Why.

History was made twice when the Oklahoma City Thunder defeated the Los Angeles Lakers 106-90 and advanced to the 2012 Western Conference Finals. In the National Basketball Association annals, of course, the game goes down as the one in which, for the first time, the young Thunder were able to get past the Lakers in a playoff series. Perhaps more broadly, the Thunder eliminating the Lakers will be remembered as a changing of the guard between the old NBA—represented by 5-time champion Kobe Bryant—and the New NBA, epitomized by Kevin Durant.

Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich by Mark KriegelHe was the sad-eyed wizard of the hardwood, wearing floppy socks and scraggly hair upon his head, the prodigy child of his father, Press Maravich. To a generation he was known as Pistol Pete, a soulful magician with a leathery, orange globe ricocheting from the tips of his fingers to the tips of his toes, the all-time leading scorer in NCAA history—a legend.

“No. I don’t follow sports.”

That’s all I’d have to say, and would it be so horrible? Would telling the truth make me that much of a pariah? Shouldn’t I just speak what I feel? Isn’t that always best?

“Do I follow the Giants? No. To be frank, Frank, I’d rather spend an afternoon wrapped in a nice goose down blanket, watching Bravo and eating Stacy’s pita chips than listening to a pair of bombastic announcers analyze eighteen human battering rams. Football does have eighteen players, right? Or is it six thousand? I always mess this up. Want a pita chip?” Crunch.

All that would be fine. Great. Then again, I’m OH SO insecure.

What kind of a man would I be if I admitted to knowing nothing about sports? Well, I’d be the kind I am, and many others are, I suppose—mild mannered folk who think a hat-trick is something a magician does and an RBI is an infomercial-reliant technical school. Sports lovers probably wouldn’t hold it against me. I’d tell them I know more about French-made semiconductors than I do about Babe Ruth (I know nothing about semiconductors) and we’d just talk about something else. Vegetable dip, or hepatitis or something. It seems so simple, until I’m faced with owning up to the fact that I’m an athletic philistine. I can’t stand being completely in the dark about any subject, let alone one that large, intimidating men care about so passionately.

Of course my friends don’t mind my ignorance. My friends that have earnest talks about “the best, cheap brunches in town” and tips to boost page views on under-trafficked blogs. They’re like me. Blissfully out-of-touch with all diamonds, gridirons, links, and hardwoods. When I’m with them, Derek Jeter might as well be a firey public relations intern, LeBron James, the third most famous member of a Des Moines barbershop quartet that hosts Sunday afternoon community center sing-alongs.

As an out-of-shape American male, I’m reminded time and time again of the shockingly small sports-ambivalent minority I help comprise. I’m not like the others in my tribe. I’m a tattered plumb v-neck in a sea of limited edition mesh game jerseys, a can of solid white albacore in a bucket of Gatorade, a guy who doesn’t like sports in a population of guys who live for them.

It’s not that the things I know and talk about are any more important than the score of yesterday’s Knicks game, or that I hate sports. I just don’t care about them. At all. The World Series is as much a concern of mine as Harold Camping’s dancing a pre-Rapture jig on my wobbly dining room table. Same for the Super Bowl, the NBA Finals, the NHL World Cup, the Iowa Corn Cob Derby Olympics, the Toothy Smile Games, and all the rest. I don’t mean to diminish athleticism or its champions’ impressive feats. Hitting home runs, dunking basketballs, kicking field goals. All these things are incredible displays of disciplined practice and God-given talent, and they’re absolutely noteworthy, especially to someone like me who struggles to pull on their socks in the morning because they’re “too tight”. I do understand that much about sports, but that’s about all I get, and I’m okay with that, as long as I’m not confronted by the more informed.

I make my way through a good number of work days without exposing my defection. Men shake my hand just like they would an Ohio State Buckeyes season ticket holder, and they’re none the wiser. We exchange greetings. We conduct business. We offer well wishes and adieus. Civilization continues as it should, as long as my secret’s kept hidden.

But, see, the weekends are different. That’s when the barbecues happen—barbecues where I only know the hosts. Barbecues where all the women are discussing wrap dresses and I’ve got nothing to add. Barbecues where I wander over to a group of guys who’ve cordoned themselves off, content to flip Worcestershire-soaked meat and talk about off-season trade prospects.

I introduce myself and pick off pieces of my beer’s label, trying not to cough from the grill smoke that relentlessly billows in my face no matter where I stand. Sports talk surrounds me and I’m silent, but, unfortunately, not for long. Sooner than later a polite member of the grill team will try to include me.

“You follow baseball, Luke?” he says.

“I do. I certainly do, indeed.” I know I must respond quickly and firmly now. I need to squeeze in lucidity while I can, before I’m asked my opinion on some well-known player’s sloping batting average and my stammering suggests severe stroke trauma.

“Who’s your team?”

“The Yankees.” I say, because it’s a safe choice and I’m afraid.

“Same here. They’ve really had a tough season, huh?”

“Yeah, it’s been rough.” That’s literally the last thing I can offer. I can fake nothing else. I’ve already taken this pathetic, brief charade to its bitter end. Any further comment will make dust of my fraudulent bones. The man who’s asking me things thinks he’s being inclusive. Little does he know my nervous system is slowly shutting down in anticipation of his questions, questions for which I shall have no answer. He thinks he’s having a friendly conversation. I think I’m the first victim in some sort of barbecue genocide, the lone target of a ruinous Murray Hill Inquisition. What could he possibly say next? Why, kind Christ, won’t he please relent? Surely those flaming slabs of meat could use more attentive seasoning.

“How about the game last night?” he pushes on.

“Ugh, I know.” I manage to turn my authentic terror into a convincing dejectedness, assuming the good ol’ team suffered another defeat. I know something’s wrong when my interrogator stares back at me, confused.

“They won. They played great for the first time in 38 games,” he says. “Did you see it?”

“Yeah, um, I was glad.” I dribble out, knowing I’ve been discovered. I’m the recipient of a disappointed look and a conversation-ending excuse.

“One second, I’m gonna check the meat,” the fan says, leaving me to suffocate in my noxious ether of obvious, petty lies.

Could this result be better than that which would’ve followed an honest admission? Maybe. But, probably not. After all, a coward liar probably puts people off more than an honest non-fan.

I look down and notice that I’ve picked off my entire beer label during the course of my panicked ruse.

I promise myself that from now on, I’ll be honest and confident in my real interests.

I take a deep breath and walk over to the cooler, thirsty for something to bide my time.

A burly bald man is there and we begin to talk. After a few short minutes, my newfound resolve is tested.

“You a football fan, Luke?” he asks.

I know this is my chance to rectify all of my trespasses. I think of the embarrassment I just endured, the poor impression I made. I think of being confident. I know what I must do.

“Absolutely,” I say, without the slightest remorse. “Absolutely, I am. But more college than pro.”

 

 

I.

I Live in a Seaside Motel

I live in a seaside motel. On nights that the ocean is lively I can lie in bed and hear it murmur midnight elegies. When I’m having trouble sleeping the sounds of the sea’s salty breath draws me out into the darkness with my miner’s torch atop my head. I cross Route 1A, scramble over the Army Corps of Engineer-constructed berm and stand before the Atlantic.

The ocean during the day inspires thoughts of nature’s majesty and human frailty. This does not change at night, but the darkness lends a sense that the massive, writhing body of water is sinister.

After I’ve stood for a spell and looked out over the black expanse I turn and walk back to the Pebble Cove Motel. Every time, as I scramble back over the berm and my feet touch concrete, I begin to run, as if unseen enemies are giving chase. The ocean’s booming and roaring seems mocking, telling me to go back to my little box and carry on being a silly human. In obeisance, I slip back into room 3 and lock the door behind me.

II.

A Modern American Family

When I tell people that I live in a motel, they typically react in one of two ways. They either say something like, “Don’t you get lonely?” or, “Cool, man, you’re living the dream!”

Because I lived at home for over a year before moving into the Pebble Cove Motel, I tend to view my life here as quite idyllic. As for the other residents, I can only surmise, but my guess is that any middle-aged or older person who lives in a motel doesn’t go around asking to be pinched.

When I responded to an advertisement on craigslist offering, “winter studio efficiency,” the man on the other end of the phone suggested I drive down to the coast and take a look at a unit that would soon be vacant. A silver-haired, no-nonsense type of guy named Steve greeted me in the parking lot and gave the tour. At the time, a Chinese business man was staying in the room. Steve said he would be out in a couple of days and that the room would be available in one week’s time.

“Don’t worry,” he said, “We’ll have the place spic-and-span for you.”

I think what he meant was that Chinaman odor would be purged by the time I moved in.

With few other short-term rental options, I decided on the spot to take the room. I gave Steve a check for one month’s rent plus a security deposit and he told me I wouldn’t regret it, that the Pebble Cove was like a little family.

Perhaps, if your family is a group of transients who get kicked to the curb come June 1st so that well-off vacationers can occupy the rooms for the peak summer months. Where the Pebble Cove diaspora goes to I do not know. I will go to Beijing because I have nothing or nobody to stick around for.

Living in the unit to the left of mine is my middle-aged sister named either Jill or Lisa who works at either Pier One or Pottery Barn. On the other side is Ulrich, my 70-something-year-old drunken, heating-man, moonlighting-Nazi of a grandfather.

Aside from them and Steve, the acting father of this little clan, I don’t know any of my other family members except by face and vehicle. There’s “Explorer Chick,” (and also “Mustang Dude Who’s Presumably Banging Explorer Chick”) “Green Honda Van Dude,” “Maroon Honda Van Guy,” “White Civic Lady,” “Young Asian Corolla Dude,” “New Jeep Cherokee Older Guy,” and “Early Model Mazda 626 Dude.”

To them, I am no doubt “Silver Subaru Forester Dude.”

It strikes me as being very American to know one another by the vehicles we drive.

III.

Excerpts From the Diary of the Woman Next Door as Imagined by Me When I’m Feeling Conscious of How Thin the Walls Are

6:34: Dear Diary:

Well, so much for sleeping in on my only day off this week. The guy in room 3 is awake and packing his dishes away as he does first thing every morning. He apparently doesn’t realize how paper thin the walls are. That or he doesn’t care. So that means he’s an idiot or a jerk off…an idiot or a jerk off with OCD. It’s bad enough that I have to talk about dishes and cookware and cutlery and wine glasses at work all day. The last thing I want to do is wake up in my goddamned pathetic motel room of an apartment and listen to the sounds of that little OCD neat-nick asshole rattling kitchen wares around. Oh well. Since I’m awake I might as well pleasure myself.

8:08: Hello Diary:

So much for falling back asleep. I was hoping he’d take a day off from the weights but his compulsive little self is back at it. I mean, I’m assuming that he’s lifting weights vigorously. That or he’s masturbating in a suit of plate mail. I really think this guy is some sort of psycho. There are probably dismembered hookers hanging up in his shower. He probably eats hooker jerky for protein after workouts. And there he goes with the music. What the hell is he even listening to? Die Die My Darling? Your Own Personal Jesus? What kinds of lyrics are those? Oh God, now he’s singing along. What, is he serenading the hookers? But he must have a pretty sweet body from all of that working out. Mmm…the thought of his young, engorged body dripping sweat all over his little box is making my little box drip. I’m going to pummel my unfruitful womb with the Black Emperor for a little while and hopefully he’ll be done by the time I get off.

2:24: Hey Diary:

What is he yelling about? Every hour or so it’s “fuck” or “shit” or “cunt” or “fuck shit cunt.” Is he playing video games? Is a hooker trying to escape? Does he have Tourette’s? One thing he obviously doesn’t have is a job, because his silver Subaru just sits there all day.

Life isn’t fair, diary. Here I am breaking my middle-aged ass working at an unspecified home furnishing store while he gets to hang around and work out and play video games and fillet prostitutes. I’d masturbate again but I’m too goddamned depressed. I think I’ll go to Burger King, order two doubles with cheese and hope I choke to death on a piece of mechanically separated beef.

11:46: Hiya Diary:

You’d think that somebody who gets up at the crack of dawn would go to bed early, not stay up all night watching TV. His “friend” in the black car just drove off. I could smell the dope smoke billowing out the door as he left. They probably had drug-fueled unprotected man sex, the sounds of which were masked by a sports broadcast played at high volume. Sometimes I can hear what sounds like German coming from his place, and last week there was that strange incident where a woman left his room shouting, “You’re fucking crazy!” And I’m inclined to agree. Only a maniac would stay up all night getting stoned, flipping back and forth between science fiction thrillers and Mother Angelica. Weirdest of all is the way he sometimes disappears into the dark with a light perched atop his head, only to come running back a bit later and slam the door shut. Meh. I guess if I’m awake I may as well diddle myself one more time.

IV.

Just Another Saturday Night Blitzkrieg

I should have suspected that Ulrich works in the trades by the way that he backs into his parking spot every evening. All of these handy types of guys—men’s men—back into parking spaces.

Ulrich is a heating man. I’m pretty sure I heard him say, “Hello, this is the heating man,” on the phone. He might have said “beating man,” though. Or “eating man.” Maybe even “cheating man.” I’d like to think he said “fleeting man” but Ulrich doesn’t strike me as much of a poet.

It must have been a tough day at the office, whether heating or beating or eating, because ol’ Ulrich moved straight into the fleeting, into the beer, and is finishing them off at a clip of roughly one per 12 minutes.

I hear the fridge door open and the rattling of bottles inside. I hear the “psssst” of a bottle top popping. I hear Ulrich’s bed sag as he falls onto it. I hear the clanking of glass as the empty gets tossed into the bin. I hear the TV growing louder with each successive brew as the alcohol insulates him to his neighbors’ desires for quiet. I know where this night is headed.

I should probably jet before it gets there. There’s that new martini bar down the road where the older women hang out. It’s no secret that I’ve been coveting older women of late. It seems like all of the women my age around here have this creepy faraway look in their eyes which is their biological alarm clock going off, demanding a baby stat. I feel like I’m wasting their time. I’m most certainly not that guy. I mean, Christ, I live in a motel. I’m hardly father material.

But the older women aren’t biting tonight. Something about the blonde girl in the corner screams she’d go home on the first night. Availability is smeared across her face like too much foundation.

Just a few years ago I was flummoxed by women. Now, I obey the simple fact that most people have a hard time saying “no” to anything. Especially when alcohol and licentiousness are involved. It’s just a matter of getting her to say, “yes,” to the right series of questions, starting with, “Can I sit down?” and culminating with, “Do you want to get out of here?”

When she asks where I live I say the Pebble Cove, because it sounds like a charming little place where successful people live, not a brick motel built in the early 1970s that rents to a collection of Recession-products during the off-season.

When we arrive there she says, “You didn’t mention that you live at a motel.” I say, “That’s because you don’t seem like the kind of girl that would come back to a motel on the first night.” This is a lie, however, as she seems precisely like the kind of girl who would come back to a motel on the first night.

But she thinks what I said is funny and this provides an opening to kiss her, which I do, and we stumble around drunkenly while making out until we fall backwards onto my bed. Once her top is off it occurs to me that I don’t want to have to wash my sheets on account of sex stains so I pick her up and move her to the smaller double bed that mostly serves as a hamper and magazine rack.

As the magazines and books and fall to the floor with a racket she giggles and Ulrich cranks his TV up. I hear the sounds of strafing machine guns and a narrator’s voice saying something like, “Hitler’s forces turned upon France in May of 1940 and using Blitzkrieg tactics were able to occupy Paris by June.”

Hitler’s voice rattles, distorted, through the flimsy TV speakers as my tongue encircles nipple. Then come the sounds of artillery being fired, the narrator’s voice, a portion of a Wagner composition, boots marching in step.

“What is that?” she asks, sitting up.

“My neighbor likes to get drunk and watch Nazi documentaries,” I say.

“Oh. Like, a lot?”

“Like every weekend.”

I had a small window to fire her up to the sexual point of no return, where she could ignore the fact that she’s gone home with a stranger to his motel room. Now I can sense that there’s some serious doubt creeping in, doubt that’s compounded by the sounds of Nazi war propaganda.

The way she looks around the room tells me this thing is doomed. I give her nipple one last lick.

“What did you say you do? You’re a writer or something?”

“I write advertising copy.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means I try to convince people to buy things they don’t really need.”

“Oh. And you do that from here?”

“Yes.”

“That must be kinda lonely.”

“Sometimes. That’s when I go to the bar and pick up a woman.”

She laughs awkwardly, probably hoping it’s a joke. I made the comment because I really want her to leave now that I know she’s not going to fuck me. I could probably cajole my way back into a tug job, but despite my targeting her on the assumption that she’d come home with me on the first night, I’m actually disappointed that she did. I think I can do better than a woman who comes back to a motel with a guy on the first night. I tell her this.

She gets out of bed and puts on her clothes to the sound of Hitler’s fiery oration.

“You know,” I say, “I’ve always suspected that German men of a certain age take great pride in the whole Nazi thing. Even though they can’t admit it, I bet you some of them view World War Two and the Holocaust in particular as the ultimate expression of German intelligence, industrialism, orderliness, thoroughness, and efficiency, which are the very cultural traits that make Germans proud, some even arrogantly so. What do you think?”

“Um, I’m Jewish,” she says as she buttons her blue overcoat and pulls on a pair of brown UGG boots.

“So what? You must still have an opinion on the matter.”

“You want to know what I think? I think you’re fucking crazy!”

She slams the door and leaves in her Volkswagen Cabriolet. Imagine that, the indignant little Jewess in her German coupe. It reminds me of those rich Jews who drive around cars made by BMW, a company that once upon a time made Nazi war machines.

I hear gravel crunching under her tires as she pulls away and then the only sounds are of alcohol abuse and German domination.

V.

Of Troglodytes and Men

I know how much forklifts cost. Warehouse forklifts, narrow aisle machines, telescopic, telehandler, straight mast, electric, internal combustion, fuel cell, with inflatable tires, pneumatic tires, heavy-duty off-road tires. I know all of the major suppliers of phone systems and how much they cost, the difference between PBX and VoIP systems and how each can help your business streamline its communications, improve customer service, and boost its bottom line. I know how much point of sales (POS) systems for night clubs, restaurants, retail stores and pizza shops cost, that Comcash has been a leading provider of POS solutions since 1996. I know how much air compressors, ATM machines, trade show displays and digital copiers cost (although individual prices may vary based on location, requirements, and individual vendors). I can give you price quotes for home improvement projects ranging from plumbing to construction to hiring an interior designer. I can explain the benefits and drawbacks of various countertop, roofing, fencing, and flooring materials. I can explain seven projects for a Japanese wood saw and why you should insure your Golden Retriever. And I can tell you without question that if the negligent actions of another caused your injury, you may be entitled to compensation.

What I can’t tell you is how the people reading this information would react if they knew it came from a guy in a motel room who neither owns nor can afford nor has any use for any of these goods or services, who is wearing only a pair of frayed soccer shorts.

“Fuck.”

The computer cursor lags on the screen.

“Shit.”

It stops completely.

“Cunt.”

The computer is frozen again.

I can tell you how much it costs to repair an overheating computer, but I can’t tell you how I’m going to come up with the money to have mine repaired.

“Fuck shit cunt.”

I shut it down, close the lid, and decide to go for a walk.

As I step out of my front door I shoo away a male cardinal who is attacking himself in my car’s passenger side mirror. When I first moved in to Pebble Cove I thought that the handsome red bird perched atop my passenger side mirror was a good omen. Now, it mostly annoys me because he scratches the glass and poops all over the door. But I also feel bad for the bastard. He doesn’t realize that persistent rival male is actually himself. The instinct to protect his turf has failed him.

I nod to Green Honda Van Dude as I make my way out to the road and walk the ½ mile to Odiorne Point State Park. It is the site of the first permanent European settlement in New Hampshire, founded in 1623. The U.S. government seized control of the land through eminent domain in the early 1940s to construct a battery that could adequately protect nearby Portsmouth Harbor. It never saw any action save for the firing of practice rounds and in 1961 the land was transferred to the State of New Hampshire for use as a state park, with all military structures demolished or exhumed except for the concrete casemate. The displaced millionaires never had a chance to reclaim their land, an enduring source of bitterness in a part of America where people don’t need much of an excuse to be enduringly bitter.

I come upon the remaining concrete fortifications which are mostly buried now under fill and secondary growth. The grey stonework peeks out from under fresh spring greens like a confused old man among a gathering of teens. Graffiti stains it in its usual forms of louche wisdom and second rate artistry.

Passing under the entombed structure I notice a breach in the metal door that leads into the casemate. I stick my cell phone into the hole and attempt to use its light to see what lies beyond, but am afforded a mere foot of visibility.

At that very moment two 20-somethings on bikes pass by and the curly-haired lead rider says, “Hold on a minute bro, we’ve got lights.”

I follow them into the hole, squeeze through the jagged-cornered opening with care and step into an environment that is dark, cold, and musty, in stark contrast to the bright, muggy day outside.

The men pan their flashlights from side to side, revealing rusted pipes and ceiling tracks that were used to roll artillery out to the guns. Duct work, beer cans, bottles, and other debris is strewn across the ground, requiring that every step be taken with care. But it’s a challenge to focus on anything except for the walls covered in charnel imagery, made more ghostly by the vertiginous shifting light and amplified sounds of the dank, asbestos-ridden chamber.

“This place doesn’t open up very often. Maybe every 10-15 years somebody finds a way in,” says the curly-haired guy. “You can tell by the dates on the walls and the can designs.”

His friend, with a dark complexion and a thin beard, mutters something about the place being like the Mines of Moria.

Off of the main hall are several rooms, one of which leads down into a wide-chambered basement. I can see my breath in the nebulous light. We descend an oxidized ladder into a small passageway that we waddle through in a squatting position. Only when crammed into a dirt-floored boiler room of approximately 4 feet tall by 8 feet wide by 8 feet long do we introduce ourselves.

When I tell them I live at the Pebble Cove Motel the dark-haired guy says, “You live in a motel? Cool, man. It’s like a movie or something.”

This is the only room where a dedicated mural exists. The rest of the bunker is a cacophony of visions that overlap and choke out any attempts at artfulness. I think about the artist who spent hour upon hour hunched in this cramped chamber, inhaling toxic air and paint fumes, to create a sepulchral work that few eyes will ever chance upon. Could their endeavor be the result of a failed instinct?

This place brings to mind prehistoric caves and how scientists try to glean those peoples’ cultural knowledge from the images drawn on the walls. If nuclear Armageddon or another endgame of humanity transpired this wartime structure would likely survive. At some point it would be discovered and the eggheads of the day would begin to surmise its meaning and what it says about its creators. They would be forced to conclude that our race was obsessed with death and fermented beverages, that we were sacrilegious, contrarian, perverted, resentful of authority, immature, would-be soothsayers, false prophets, plagiarists, charlatans, hopeful yet pessimistic all at once, that we possessed a darkness of spirit that was given expression by our creative impulses. If those surveying this relic of 20th and 21st century Homo sapiens didn’t know any better, they would swear that we were somehow rooting against our own cause, that like a cardinal pecking itself in the passenger side mirror of a Subaru, some instinct of our race had collectively failed us.

As for my own instincts, it seems that at least one of them favors driving me into small, claustrophobic spaces that I share with the company of strangers. The first of June is nigh, and when I turn the page on the calendar I will also turn the page on the next stage of my life. As the vacationers arrive to enjoy the finest New England months the troglodyte slinks into the shadows, holes up in a Chinese ghetto to fester in the heat of summer. The instinct that tells me to do this is the same one that told me to leave Her behind and stare down the barrel of life alone. Only in time will I be able to judge whether this instinct has failed me.

***

It is a humid late-May evening and I am unable to sleep. Listening to the ocean hum and haw in the darkness I decide to head back to the bunker.

With my miner’s torch secured atop my head I proceed to Odiorne Point State Park. When I get to the bunker I find that the opening has been sealed, consigning the paint-splattered interior to memory and posterity. I sit down there in the darkness under the bunker’s arch with my flashlight and my flesh and my instincts and wonder why the hell I can’t sleep, and decide that it’s the same reason why the ocean can’t sleep.

On the way back home I stop at my usual midnight overlook and see a sliver of moonlight break dancing the heaving chest of the sea. When I turn around and head back towards room 3 at the Pebble Cove I don’t run this time.

Click to view a complete photo gallery of The Bunker

Fishing

By Summer Block

Humor

In third grade, my schoolteacher told me that I was ugly, but that with any luck I’d look better when I grew up. When I tell that story now, people assume I am looking for sympathy, but in fact, even at the time, I appreciated her honesty. I knew I was a very weird-looking child and no number of sympathetic clucks from adults would have convinced me otherwise. What I wanted to hear were practical steps for improving my present appearance or barring that, at least hard-nosed realism coupled with hope for the future. And as an adult I am in fact much less weird-looking than I was as a child, so my teacher was right.

A culture of coddling is of little help to an eight-year-old who has to wait another eight years to grow into her nose, but this type of “oh no, I think you’re the pretty one!” back and forth would become only more of a fixture in junior high and high school, where “fishing,” as we called it, was the norm. “I look so fat today!” some slight preteen would moan, and it was the sworn duty of us all to insist that no, no, she was not at all fat, if anything we were the fat ones. And of course the prettier and bolder and more confident the fisherman, the more willing she was to throw that rod out there.

The problem with this expectation of “fishing” is that it makes it difficult to honestly discuss my many very real inadequacies. As soon as you say you are terrible at parallel parking or putting on eye shadow or cooking rice, someone wants to grab that bait, but seriously, I am not fishing. Nor would I ever. Because I am really, really terrible at fishing.

In fact, I am truly, uniquely bad at doing a host of things, including things that virtually everyone else I know can do readily. For example, I’m thirty-one years old and I don’t know how to ride a bike. I suppose technically I have managed at times to bike as far as a single city block, but slowly, unsteadily, and certainly neither calmly nor gracefully. I didn’t learn to swim until I was ten; I didn’t learn to drive until I was twenty-four, and in both cases it shows. At this rate, I had better live to be at least 120 if I ever want to be a normal, functioning person. I also can’t spit, whistle, or skip stones, making me something like the anti-Tom Sawyer. I am truly, colossally, show-stoppingly bad at sports of all kinds. The kind of bad that makes people want to pull out their iPhones and start uploading to Fail Blog. Schooled in the polite demurral, a friend may assure me that no, really, I certainly could learn to snowboard if I wanted to, but that person has likely never seen me hop madly off a ski lift face-first like a little broken sparrow on its last trip down to earth.

Nor are my failings limited to athletic ones. I am so bad at following the plots of movies that I will read plot summaries on IMDB while watching the film and still not understand what’s happening, even on repeat viewings. I can’t play chess, poker, or any card games. When someone begins to explain the rules of a card game to me, it’s like a part of my mind just turns off and all I hear is the dull, content-less drone of their voice. In college, no fewer than four people tried to teach me how to play bridge, but some people just cannot learn. My skills at estimation, of volume, duration, capacity, or extension, are bad enough to shake your belief in my fundamental neurological soundness. If there are two thousand jelly beans in that jar, I’m as likely to guess one hundred. Or a million. Or ten.

It is for this reason that I simply cannot imagine needing to be falsely modest. Who has time to make up additional failings? In fact, I am more than delighted to trumpet my humble accomplishments wherever I find them. I have very nice handwriting, I’m quite good at gluing broken ceramic objects back together, and I have an unmatched memory for song lyrics. Trust me: if I’m good at something, I’ll let you know. So when I tell you I can’t snowboard, there’s no need to shake your head and protest. I really can’t snowboard. Be like my third grade teacher and accept that I have some natural limitations and perhaps we can find a way to work around them. Considering watching “Inception” tonight? How about we just glue things together instead? Or, like my optimistic teacher, we can just hope that I grow out of it all, and I might, if I’m not killed falling off a ski lift first.


Dear Dust

Sports are terrible now. The NFL is in the middle of a lockout because the millions they’re all making isn’t enough. MLB has seen two no-hitters this year and fans continue to stay away from ballpark. Even the media are having a hard time to find compelling stories to highlight. The NBA is a joke — players collude in the off season to determine what team to play for, demanding salaries that could relieve entire nations of health and medical problems. Tiger Woods was the reason to watch golf and now he can’t make it through nine holes. Seriously, do sports suck so hard?

All Blows

Money: it’s not the Mark anymore, obviously, but the Euro. It comes with a slew of coins, of which I have countless every evening, because I’m not used to coins anymore. Having lived in the States for fifteen years, I’m also not used to the different-color-and-size bills, which my memory doesn’t accept as German. The other Germans do however, and once called the Euro the Teuro (the Expensivo). They don’t use that nickname anymore. Starbucks Latte starts at $4.50.

Toilets: Few of the truly Teutonic bowls remain, but I happen to have rented one with my apartment. New bowls don’t swirl water the American way but push it, dump it. But they do look pretty much the same. Old bowls however have a step, a throne, on which things rest until the flush. “Good for taking samples,” a friend remarked.

Sports: If you don’t like soccer, you’re out of luck. There’s a bit of tennis in the news, a bit of Formula One (see above; hey, a German is the reigning champion), and the rest is soccer. Oh, there is also handball (soccer with the hands). Every other sport in any other country is dutifully ignored to talk some more about the dismissal of the Bayern Munich coach and the re-hiring of one of his predecessors. I’d rather watch Clippers games.

Cars: I thought I loved Audis. After five weeks in Germany I’m looking forward to seeing Crown Vics. Imagine a school full of Little Princes.

Speech: There’s a strange wordy meekness in colloquial, and now even written, German. What in English would be a hearty “Let’s do it,” becomes a “Ja, das könnten wir schon auch noch mal machen.” It expresses weariness and the not-so-secret conviction that things will not be possible. It’s the same pattern used for complaints about life and work.

Recently, while scouring the sports pages for reading material (I’m not a soccer fan), I came across this sentence, describing the problems Ferrari is having with its Formula One team, its small steps of progress, and the fans’ impatience: “Für einen so vorsichtigen Aufwärtstrend wie Ferrari ihn mit dem Brasilianer Felipe Massa auf Platz fünf und dem Spanier Fernando Alonso auf Rang sechs in Malaysia andeuteten, findet das in größeren Kategorien tickende Temperament Italiens tatsächlich keine wirkliche Nuance.”

Translated, the sentence means, “Ferrari fans were not impressed.”

Heating: It’s hot and dry in German houses, hotels, galleries, and apartments. In the 80s and 90s, old apartments still had large, tiled coal ovens to heat the rooms. They kept rents affordable and every surface dusty-red. If you came home in irregular intervals, you found your home icy-cold and it took two hours for the oven to heat up again. Windows were crappy too, and my flowers always had fresh air, even after I had sealed the frames and cracks for the winter.

Nowadays, central heat rules even the German capital, and only the staircases remain as dark and damp as ever, emanating the dank smell of Protestant churches. Inside it’s hot and dry. In bathrooms, the heaters are ladder-shaped, great for drying towels, socks, etc. The windows are new and airtight. When I wake up in the small apartment in the geriatric district of Steglitz I feel as though I’m having a nosebleed. My tongue can only be removed from wherever it’s stuck with force. I hang wet laundry everywhere. It dries in mere hours.

Complaints: Not even Germans like Germany. Many of the people I talked to have plans on leaving, dreams of leaving (I heard those same comments in Buffalo, NY. Most of the ones who left ended up in North Carolina).

Germans love to complain about life and their country. It seems in bad taste not to take life hard. I fit right in. It’s as though complaining is a way of showing that you’re in on the joke, even though and because you have no idea what that joke might be. However, they do seem certain that there is one. If you don’t complain you’re either an arrogant asshole, or you are just showing how superficial and gullible you are. Saying you’re enjoying yourself is as bad as admitting that you have three nipples or a second belly button.

Berlin: it’s hard to embrace a city that was 70 percent destroyed and rebuilt on a smaller, uglier scale after World War II. What remains of pre-war Berlin is quite beautiful, yet it feels impossible to fully embrace it. You might find a particular building beyond the park fascinating, even beguiling, until you find out it housed the Nazi court that sent political dissidents to their death. The feeling is close to finding out your beloved grandfather was a war criminal. Here, your whole family turns out to have been war criminals. They’re your family. You love them, especially in the spring, which is always fragile and seduces young couples in parks and by the canals. You love them. They are war criminals. You love them?

Language: It’s difficult for me to speak German, it won’t fit into my mouth correctly. People comment on my accent. Then there are sudden bursts of language, old channels opening and releasing idioms, sayings, and TV jingles I haven’t heard or used in fifteen years. These come with discomfort, as though I’ve sworn or eaten a bag of candy.

I love to think that I love Berlin, but there comes a moment when what your eyes find again is not what you remembered. And when I put the old images on top of the new they won’t fit anymore. It’s a delicious moment, full of hidden longings. I’m trying to see how my lover has grown. But maybe the gap between old and new has widened too much, my mind refuses to fall in love again. Maybe I’m in love with my memories of fragile and seductive springs. Maybe that’s what Berlin has become for me — a place without a present.

CONTEXT: On February 5, 2011, David Shields and I spoofed jocks in The Nervous Breakdown. Less than two months later I wrote an article at TNB about a dubious competition run by a Seattle sports radio station, KJR. Then I sent a link of the article to KJR, and they responded. This is the next chapter: 

According to Forbes Magazine, Seattle is the most miserable sports town in the United States. As a Northwest native and long suffering fan of the Mariners, Seahawks, and the now departed Sonics, I cannot disagree.  Our bad teams are complemented by Seattle sportscasters with Moobs (Manboobs) and Seattle whiner-fans griping about East Coast Bias. Yet I never have minded being the underdog. Unfortunately, the Seattle sports scene has deeper problems. As a father of three daughters, and a lifelong sports junkie, I’m having a mid-life crisis.

THE JOSH LUEKE “RAPE”: In May of 2008 two baseball players on a Texas Rangers farm team met a woman at a bar and took her home. The woman, unidentified, promptly threw up and passed out in their apartment.  She woke partially clothed and physically violated, and went to the authorities. The results: DNA from her jeans, tank top, hair, and semen on an anal swab matched one of the athletes, Josh Lueke. He was arrested, charged with rape, but eventually pleaded guilty of a lesser felony, the obscure False imprisonment with violence. He emerged relatively unscathed, his career intact.

Last summer the Seattle Mariners traded for Lueke, and he is now on the big league club. His presence makes the transgressions of other Mariners tame (one has battled domestic violence accusations and another shoved last year’s manager). I’ve had it. This year I will not listen or watch Mariners games, and if the team does not get rid of the scum, I will not watch next year or ever. Our family will now enjoy baseball games played by the Everett AquaSox.

THE MORAL PLACEBO: Okay, I’m boycotting the Mariners. So friggin’ what? Sex crimes happen across the spectrum of society. Every city has their scandal. Pittsburgh Steeler Ben Roethlisber has similar trouble, but this just gives me one more reason to hate the Steelers. It’s true there are two sides. Gold diggers like Karen Sypher, who was sentenced to 7+ years for extortion after an affair with Kentucky coach Rick Pitino, are an element, but her egregious actions in no ways justify a defense of the creeps.

So what’s a moral placebo? A “moral placebo” is when an individual makes a pledge or action on ethical grounds, yet the main beneficiary is the individual: he or she feels better about him or herself. Examples: Swearing not to drive an SUV; praying really, really hard for the well-being of starving children in underdeveloped countries; or boasting about how your eight million-dollar mansion “saves” energy because it has solar panels, even though you consume twenty times more energy than the average citizen. Yes. Words and action have a relationship (perhaps the person praying will actually send money or volunteer), but without action these stands are useless. Call me cynical, but brandishing a candle against the proverbial darkness often comes off as bullshit.

Nevertheless, I brandish, I spout, and thus I’d like to add a few words about my other “moral placebo,” a boycott of KJR Sports 950 and their sponsors. My previous TNB post took on KJR’s Mitch “Dork in the Morning” Levy and The Bigger Dance. I sent a post of this article to KJR, and soon after a few members of the KJR Society for the Legalization of Date-Rape responded. One KJR DJ took the time to engage me and defend his right to objectify women.

EXCHANGE BETWEEN KJR DJ & MYSELF:

Caleb Powell: KJR supporters have revealed themselves in the “Comments” section.

KJR DJ: Wow. Nice to see such an intellect using the proper narrow brush.

(He pasted from my interview with David Shields)

Powell: Angelina Jolie or Katherine Zeta-Jones?

Shields: Uhhhh…Angelina Jolie or hmmm…I would say Katherine Zeta-Jones.

Powell: Beyoncé or Britney?

Shields: Uh…I must admit…Britney.

I think it’s the consistency in your point of view that I find so refreshing. By the way it’s “Catherine” with a C.

CP: It’s a Spoof on Barkley. Thanks for the ‘C’ tip. Didn’t you notice the intro: “Using questions often directed at jocks, specifically Charles Barkley, we did a quick Q&A…”

KJR DJ: Ohhhhhh. I see. When YOU do it it’s a spoof. Got it.

CP: Didn’t know the Dance was a spoof.

KJR DJ: So you think we take it seriously? Honestly…it seems wildly hypocritical of you to ask David Shields what you asked him and then trash us and our listeners for what is in fact a harmless little contest. Then you play your deal off as a spoof but still want to take ours seriously.

If you don’t like the contest then there’s an easy way to deal with it. Don’t pay attention to it. But don’t demand that every other person has to see things your way…or that one or two people who respond to your post are suddenly representative of the entire listening audience of KJR.

CP: Representative? Even one KJR fan thinking like that should make you worry. “Wildly hypocritical?” That’s hyperbole. My piece with Shields ridiculed the “dumb jock.” “Harmless little contest?” Bullshit. You and KJR take it seriously. The contest is not a spoof, it’s a cash cow for KJR; sure, to you it’s fun and for the most part harmless, but it objectifies women. That’s a problem. Men that objectify women are more likely to be violent. There is a direct correlation, the evidence is there, and yes, I’m giving you a conclusion, but the studies behind it are complex and cogent.

And even though, for the most part it’s harmless and most guys that get off on the Dance are okay, enough of them are “date-rapes waiting to happen.” Those comments here at The Nervous Breakdown are frightening, aren’t they? You want those guys dating someone you care about? Hey, I don’t know if you have a daughter or a sister, but would you want any woman to have to deal with men that think objectifying women is “harmless?” It’s not.

KJR DJ: And it’s pretty damned convienient that YOU do this and claim you were just ridiculing the dumb jock. But we’re doing it and we’re equated to rapers (sic) and murderers. THAT my friend is bullshit. Tell yourself anything you want.

CP: You’re not rapists, but rapists feed off your schtick.

KJR DJ: But no rapist read your interview with David, right?

CP: What? Another non-sequitor?

That’s it. KJR DJ at least thought about the issues, yet his argument was hampered by a rudimentary use of rhetorical modifiers and his inability to understand irony. He chose to remain anonymous. I don’t listen to KJR, and though I’m boycotting their sponsors, like Mike’s Hard Lemonade, big deal, I never drank it, anyway.

Yet maybe I’m wrong. Maybe beliefs and stands matter. My wife backs me, our oldest daughter plays T-ball, and I’ve discovered other parents agree. Seattle Mariner attendance is down, and a young struggling team is not the only reason. The lit candle might not be a mere platitude. Our views influence how we raise our children and treat our peers. They’re not just token moral placebos.

Dear Robin Lopez,

Please cut your hair. You look like American Idol Season I runner-up Justin Guarini.

You do.

You really do.


I ask you this with the sincerest of intentions.

Every time I watch a Phoenix Suns game, I think three things:

1. Aaron Brooks could be Chris Rock’s double should Chris Rock ever pull a Martin Lawrence (Rebound, 2005) and make a horrible basketball film;



2. If Steve Nash isn’t the spitting image of cigarette smoking, rebel bad ass Kelly Leak from the original Bad News Bears (1976) with Walter Matthau as Coach Morris Buttermaker then no one is; and



3) How you look like that guy from American Idol.

Justin Guarini.

And I’ve never even seen a full episode of American Idol.

Seriously, I haven’t.

No, I’m serious.

And it’s because of the hair.

Not mine. That’s not why I have never seen a full episode of American Idol.

It’s because of your hair that you look like Justin Guarini.

It’s not like you’re suffering from what Andrew Bynum suffers from or Brian Scalabrine. Bynum looks like Tracy Morgan because of the face.



The same as Scalabrine being Michael Rapaport’s doppelganger because of the similarity in facial features.



Although, I take back the latter in some regard. It doesn’t help Scals that he and Rapaport both sport the red do and that Rapaport takes part in the NBA Celebrity Game during each year’s All-Star break.

But Robin, don’t get me wrong. It’s not just you. Anderson Verajao looks like Justin Guarini too, which is why I’m making a carbon copy of this letter and replacing your name with his at every occasion.

I know, I know — the hair is your good luck charm and you can’t just go and chop it off like Iverson did with his trademark cornrows. (Look where that got ole AI: a roster slot with Beşiktaş in the Turkish Basketball League) Your hair is what helps you bring in those mind-shattering statistics you do night in and night out as the Phoenix Suns big man: .1 apg, 2.2 bpg, 3.3 rpg, and 7.0 ppg. Averaging 3.3 rpg as a 7’0″ center is some feat. Very Rodman-esque.

But this letter is the least I can do. I’m only looking out for you.

And hey, at least I didn’t say you looked like Sideshow Bob.

Because although you do somewhat, Varejao has totally got you beat on that one.



Sincerely,

A concerned NBA fan

Jeffrey Pillow


This is a continuation of a series of personal observations about my native country on its golden jubilee. For items 1-16, please see part 1. For items 17-32, see part 2. In this final installment I include a few observations I’ve culled from my father’s memoir of his life in Nigeria and abroad “Seeing the World in Black & White.” (SWBW) (AWP, 2006)¹

33. Modern Nigerian literature, ever vibrant, is certainly on the up. Young as it is Nigeria has already had an early generation of great writers, household names such as Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, not to mention the likes of Cyprian Ekwensi, Amos Tutuola, Christopher Okigbo, Flora Nwapa, Buchi Emecheta, and even the prolific pulp novelist Dan Fulani. It’s almost too much to ask for more, but as it happens, we have much, much more with new generations exploding on to the scene, including poets Chris Abani, Uche Nduka, Olu Oguibe and lesser known contemporaries such as Chinweizu. But the real earthquake manifests in novel form, with the emergence of the likes of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Helen Oyeyemi, Sefi Atta, and Nnedi Okorafor. I can’t pass without a word for the recently deceased poet and playwright Esiaba Irobi. One of the neat aspects of these 21st century blossoms is that so many of them are young women.

A Good Sport

By Mat Zucker

Essay

The question I most dread on Monday is: “Did you watch the game on Sunday?”

Not because I didn’t see it. I usually do witness the last minutes of the game, especially since football consistently runs late and bleeds into my Sunday tradition: “60 Minutes”. This throws off our dinner plans and any DVR recordings on CBS the rest of the night. So, sure, I know who won and lost, but it’s more out of irritation and impatience than joy of victory or crushing disappointment. I also find it disrespectful to the newscasters, who — like their audience — aren’t exactly young with unlimited time for extra time outs. During the show’s opening credits, each seems to introduce him or herself (“I’m Morley Safer”, “I’m Lesley Stahl”) as if it’s the last time. The courteous thing for the football teams to do would be to start earlier or finish their game within their allotted time slot. I don’t want to say that players are big, dumb and stupid but if you can memorize a few plays off a chalkboard and push each other slowly back and forth across a field, throwing a ball just a few yards but command a lot of drama, then you can figure out the concept of time.