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.