Sunday, June 24, 2007

Hair and Boxing

I went to get my hair cut today, down near 30th Avenue in Astoria. That long walk, through Little Egypt, always featuring the clumps of sullen Middle Eastern guys in front of the hookah cafes, some international soccer channel playing inside, a night game in Tunisia, that strong, sweet hookah tobacco smell all over the block.

The barbershop is run by an older Russian guy and his son, friendly people, I’ve gone there about six times now. The price is right, the cut is usually good enough. I always expect my back and sides to get buzzed or be shorter, because they grow in so fast. But I’ve gathered I’m never happy with the length and let it go. The older guy must be around 60, his son late 30s. His son has a big, wavy hair-metal mullet, a real head of hair, the kind of thing I expect to see on a non-balding Russian barber in the 718s. (I prefer getting him as he gives a better buzz cut on the back and sides. The last time, he had his eight-year-old son with him, and the kid kept grilling me on professional wrestling, which I knew nothing about.)

As I was sitting there getting my hair cut by the old man, I heard the son mutter, “Oh, shit, here comes the cry baby.” I couldn’t look out the window, but I could see in the mirror, a man and woman dragging a small boy down the sidewalk. Looked to be of same vague Eastern European descent, maybe Armenian – not dark enough to be Middle Eastern, but clearly somewhere in that hazy meeting ground between western and arabic cultures.

They burst through the door, and, christ, the kid was pitching a fit. The scene in The Omen where they try to take Damien to church? This was the same freak out. The kid was wailing like he was about to be circumcised with a butter knife. His hair wasn’t that long, straight and black, probably about halfway over his ear and down his neck. Tears, screaming, desperate pleading in whatever their native language is. Hippies getting forced crew cuts in some redneck jail circa 1968 after a routine traffic stop were probably less emphatic.

It’s been awhile since I’ve been around anyone that emotional. I mean, this kid was laying it all out there, no bullshit, a truly naked display of full-on emotion. Whether it was rage, fear, whatever, I don’t know. But the father stayed outside while the mother dragged him into the chair. Because the chair was next to mine, I was worried that this wired little prick would bump the old man while he was straight-blade razoring the back of my neck. They had another guy working there (which was unusual), and it was his job to corral the kid, get him to sit still and shear him. The younger son kept offering the kid a lollipop, which seemed like offering a cigarette to a prisoner about to be shot by a firing squad.

The mother picked out the cut: “Give-ah him, Number 3 onna the sides, and Number 2 on top. Short. Real short.” She started jabbering at the kid in their language, which only made him howl louder. Seeing this kid go apeshit brought back to me the one or two times I pulled the same stunt, a faraway memory, but I do recall cutting loose like that at least once.

The difference is, I had real reason to be scared. Leo the barber back home in Pennsylvania would buzz me so that all I’d have left on the top of my head would be a patch of stubble and burred sides. I don’t think he even bothered with scissors – just used that large buzz clipper and ran it up and down the sides of my skull, clipping off whatever overhang there was on top. Took about five minutes. (Later, as I mentioned in a previous post, he once shaved spots into the side of my head just like punk rockers at the time were getting, save Leo knew nothing about punk and was just giving me a deeply strange haircut.) I think I cried earlier because of two things: the sense of a change about to occur, and the act of something, even if it was only hair, being cut off my body. It scared me in some very real sense, enough to make me cry, hard.

Of course, the same thing would happen with me as did with this kid. Once the haircut got underway, I was reduced to sniffles and those odd crying hiccups, but I’d calm down so that when the barber was done, I’d be totally rational and ready for my lollipop. As with this kid, too, I remember my mom being there to calm me down. It made sense that the kid’s father waited outside – he needed his mother to soothe him in this troubled time. By the time I left, the kid was totally under control, and seemed to be reasonably happy with his cut. His mother made a motion to step outside, and the kid turned, cried mommy, but not as urgent. She said something in their language, probably to the effect of “I’m only going outside to talk to your father,” and he turned around, like a big boy, and gazed at himself in the mirror. It’s interesting to note that he never said a word to any of the barbers, who were constantly trying to talk to him, reassuring things like “that’s a good boy” and “there, now, you’re acting like a fine young man, good, good.”

The weird thing? Tie this in with my previous experience shopping at the supermarket – these guys were playing some crazy shit on their sound system. While I was there, I heard “Love Is Blue” by Paul Mauriat (a great 60s instrumental), “Bip Bop” by Wings (off the Wild Life album, a song I’ve never before heard played publicly), “Sound and Vision” by David Bowie, “Killer Queen” by Queen (the old barber knew the words … imagine some 60ish dude singing “Drop of a hat/she’s as willing as/playful as a pussycat” in heavily-accented Russian while he shaves your neck) and two euro-disco type songs in Russian I didn’t know, which sounded like “Johnny and Mary” by Robert Palmer. This is some seriously freaky shit for me to be hearing in a barbershop. Why am I hearing really cool music every time I step inside traditionally non-cool places like supermarkets and barbershops?

Apropos of nothing really, but I also wanted to note something that’s been happening in my boxing class lately, the one on Tuesday. Understand that with these classes, there’s a core group of regulars, of which I’m one. Some classes, like the one on Sunday, there’s a floating group of 10 or so people who show up on a regular basis, although rarely at the same time. The only constants are me and the instructor’s girlfriend, an Indian girl in top shape who really kicks ass. (She attends all of his classes, about six a week.) The Monday class, the regulars are about five or six of us. Tuesday, the same.

But the classes are rarely just the regulars – they’re the regulars, plus people who show up, either once and never again, or sporadically. Maybe attending for a few months straight and disappearing, or showing up as their schedule allows, here and there. By far, the bulk of attendees are in the “once and never again” camp. As stated earlier, you will be physically challenged in these classes, however tough or in-shape you are, and a lot of people don’t want to deal with that shit on a regular basis. And that’s fair enough – it’s not for everybody, and there’s certainly no shame in this. I’ve taken classes in the gym where I thought, “No. I’m never doing this again.”

Then there are the weirdoes. Every now and then, some person shows up who becomes semi-legendary to the regulars because he (always a he) is so strange that his presence stands out. On Sunday, there’s a guy I call Lee Harvey (as in Oswald) who’s become a regular. Lee Harvey’s a strange guy – looks to be of some military background and is in stupendous physical condition – probably as good as the instructor and his girlfriend. Thing is, he has that off-kilter, quiet military intensity about him, and he likes to kick-box every chance he gets. Thus, if you get placed on a heavy bag with him, you know at some point he’s going to start dropping very hard side and head kicks into the bag, which can be a little disorienting and frightening if you don’t know it’s coming. We’ve all come to accept Lee Harvey for who he is – it’s clear that he’s basically a good guy – but nobody wants to get on a bag with him because they know how weird he’s going to get.

On Tuesday, a guy I’ll call Julio has started showing up. Not his real name, but Julio is a Latino who could pass for white – I thought he was a Hasidic Jew the first time I saw him. Just has that look about him – dark brown, longish hair, pale skin, full beard, long straight nose, gangly demeanor. He’s got a weird body, too – very out of shape. Skinny, but with big love handles, a pot belly and puckish little man tits. No muscle at all in his legs. He also smokes, which he proudly admitted to the instructor the first class – he’s got yellow teeth. Throws off the vibe of somebody who’s either been homeless or in prison. A mildly unsettling presence about him, a sort of negative charisma.

To put it kindly, the guy has the attention span of a five-year-old on crack. Thus, he finds it impossible to follow along in the class. While the rest of us are doing those soul-sucking drop-down/push-up/jumping jack routines (20 of those will get anyone winded, assuming you can do 20 in a row), Julio will calmly retreat to the back of the class, or leave the gym, and pace around, returning when he can see that we’ve moved onto something else. When we’re doing combinations, he’ll be doing something else, usually just punching straight ahead, while we all do synchronized moves. The worst is running. The instructor has us running all the time now, sprints up and down the gym that remind me of high-school basketball practice, and Julio will just stand there pretending that he’s invisible when this is happening.

The instructor can’t fucking stand him – understandably so. As with any class, somebody doesn’t follow along, it disrupts the flow. I’m surprised he hasn’t demanded that Julio leave. I understand that Julio showed up at another of his classes, and the instructor demanded that he follow along. Julio went nuts, yelling about how much he’s paying to be in the gym, he doesn’t deserve this shit, why are you singling me out, etc. The guy’s clearly a bit nuts. And he physically threatened the instructor. Please understand, I outweigh the instructor by about 60 pounds. If he ever challenged me to a fight, I’d start running. The guy’s been a professional boxer, he can hit as hard as I can despite being much smaller, and he can hit much faster. He’s probably the best physically-conditioned person I’ve ever met – strong as an ox, compact, incredible endurance. You don’t threaten a guy like this, unless you have a death wish.

I think the instructor’s response was to give him a calm “you’re about to lose consciousness” stare, and state: “Don’t do it. Leave. Now.” Which Julio did. I think that showdown knocked a little sense into him, but the guy’s still wacked out and showing up to class, still blowing off the harder physical routines, still unable to execute even the most basic combinations because he’s just not paying attention. What he’s still doing there, I don’t fucking know. The other week, I got him on a heavy bag, the instructor thought pairing him with me would enlighten the guy a little as to how to act in a boxing class (i.e., pay attention and do everything you're asked to the best of your abilities). And Julio had a blast holding onto the bag while I destroyed it – I made it a point to really cut loose with him on it, and he was impressed. When it came his turn, he flailed on the bag like a high-school girl in a cat fight, started panting after 15 seconds, went out and got some water.

I could see he was basically a nice guy, despite his strangeness. Very friendly, talkative. The thing is, I’m not there to be talkative. Before and after class, sure, a lot of us will stand around and banter. But not during. There’s a girl who shows up sometimes on Tuesdays, too, actually her and a friend (they never show up alone). She has a lot of tattoos and a lip ring, real bad-girl material, but she knows she in a class with people who are physically tougher than she is. You can tell she’s a little intimidated, but holds her ground. Once, we were both paired on the same heavy bag, and the instructor was getting ready to start us on 30-second rounds, holding or hitting, trading places every 30 seconds. I’d never said anything to her, but as I was getting ready to unload on the bag, my right hand cocked back to land that first overhand hook, her eyes met mine, she could see I wasn’t fucking around, and that look we exchanged, a shared, knowing grin, I could tell she “got it” at that moment, why she was there. Have hardly said two words to each other, but I feel like I understand her in some quiet way, and I suspect the feeling’s mutual.

But Julio fucks around, to the extent that I can’t sand the sight of him, even though I know he’s not a truly bad person. People that weird generally don’t last more than a few classes, but he’s been hitting that Tuesday class every time the past month, and doing the same in each: not paying attention, blowing off conditioning, and not learning a damn thing about boxing. The instructor can’t wait for him to disappear. Both of us know he will. We’ve seen many freaks and weirdoes in his classes over the past decade, but Julio may take the cake in terms of lasting the longest.

Not sure what the connection is between Julio and that wailing Armenian kid. But for some reason, I felt like writing about both.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Pennies on the Tone Arm, MP3 Style

Back when vinyl records were king, there were plenty of problems with them. Not so much problems – it’s just that if you didn’t take meticulous care of your records, they often got scratched to shit and sounded awful. Guess what? I was a kid. I didn’t handle my records with special gloves (which I’ve seen vinyl enthusiasts do). I dropped the needle all over the record to skip certain songs. I accidentally dragged the needle across the record. I often left records out of the sleeve, thus exposing to them to dust and more chances to be scratched.

As a result, most of my records sounded like shit after a few months. (If it was a record that really grabbed me, I’d play it incessantly for a good few weeks.) Snap, crackle and pop were part of the soundscape. Some scratches were so prominent that I remember them as much as I remember musical passages in certain songs, and am surprised not to hear my memorized skip on a clean CD version. Skips were the worst, especially when they stopped a song cold. There was a way to get around skips: put pennies or other small coins on the tone arm to force the needle deeper into the vinyl grooves. It was a bad thing to do, wearing out the vinyl more quickly, but sometimes it was necessary. The only thing worse than a skip was a mis-shaped record. I once left a T. Rex greatest hits collection sit on the seat of a car in summer. In direct sunlight. The record looked like a big black contact lens after that, totally ruined.

As you gather, I’m not a “miss the warmth of vinyl” person. (I think the "warmth of vinyl" dudes would be much better served by the warmth of a bare tit.) I’m much more a music fan than an audio enthusiast. CDs, for the most part, sound fine to me. (You want a kick, go to a website run by Steve Hoffman, apparently a famous mastering engineer, and read some of the dozens of posts on there regarding CD sound quality. Guys arguing over the Japan mastering of Hotel California that costs $500 on E Bay, as opposed to the Dutch mastering that you can get for $25 on import. And another guy who found the rare DCC version that trumps them all in sound quality in a used bin at a record store in Pasadena for $4.99.)

MP3s, if they’re created at 192 kbps or higher, sound fine to me. (Even some that are recorded lower sound fine – the source material dictates the quality of an MP3 file.) MP3s, in my opinion, are the greatest thing to happen to music in my lifetime. (Of course, they’re the worst thing that’s ever happened to the music business in terms of lost sales and future audiences believing “music is free.” In short order, the music industry is going to have to figure out how to survive without physical product to sell, and millions of people openly pirating the un-physical product. I don’t envy them!)

The problem with MP3s? Really nothing, save that sometimes the players we store these things on malfunction, and when they do, christ, it is hell.

Nothing really went wrong with MP3 player (a Creative Nomad Zen 60 GB Jukebox) this past weekend. What went wrong was my Windows XP quietly upgraded the media player to version 11, which apparently has bugs in it that make not just the media player, but my entire computer, including the Creative software that allows me to transfer tracks to the MP3 player, not recognize the MP3 player. Doesn’t sound like a big deal? Without my computer’s ability to recognize the MP3 player, the player is frozen in time – can’t add music to it, can’t transfer that music anywhere else.

Understand this player holds 60 gigabytes of music – right now, I have about 40 gigabytes on there, roughly 8,500 songs. Of those songs, I have about 80% of the various folders (50s Rock, 60s Pop, 70s Rock, Blues, Country, etc.) backed-up on DVD discs. The remaining 20% or so falls into two folders: Pop and Country Rock. Pop is basically new pop music from the 90s onwards (all quirky, indie shit … no Britney Spears, I’m afraid). Country Rock is any sort of alt. country music from the 90s onwards. We’re talking roughly 2,000 songs that were in danger of disappearing for me. About 1/3rd of them are backed-up on a previous MP3 player, another 1/3rd I could painstakingly recreate from reloading songs from Emusic and my CD collection, and about 1/3rd comes from other sources that would have just disappeared. A few hundred songs, gone just like that, and a few dozen hours spent re-loading and burning tracks.

That’s the main issue with MP3s now. You have the ability to create such large collections that it may not dawn on you, until you’re in a situation like this, just how much music you have on these players. We’re talking the musical equivalent of dozens of albums. If you had taken a few dozen of my albums back in 1979 and threw them on a fire, I’d have shit my pants in rage. In 2007, you can lose a few dozens albums worth of songs in the blink of an eye, or the momentary change in software on a computer that wipes the slate clean.

I was pissed.

I got even more pissed when I went on the Creative discussion boards to find that the company had done virtually nothing to address the problem, and that hundreds of other people had the same problem. Unfortunately, I started trying the various “home remedies” some of these people have come up with (all with varying levels of success) to correct the problem. After half an hour of trying various solutions, my MP3 player had switched into some strange safe mode, stayed frozen in that window and did not appear to be working. A condition which lasted all of Saturday night while I shit bricks in my shorts and exhaled steam from my ears.

A piece of advice on these internet discussion boards related to products you purchase: never listen to them. They’re always fucked up. The people on there are often snotty tech-heads who leave out key steps in the process that end up really fucking with you and your product. For instance, I had a previous player where the earphone jack wasn’t connecting properly. (If you take apart any audio device with an earphone, you realize that when you plug an earphone in, all you’re doing is forcing one piece of metal to touch another, thus tapping into the audio.) Various tech-heads on the discussion board laid out instructions on taking the machine apart and fixing the headphone jack yourself – one guy even laid out a picture diagram on how to do it. What his picture diagram missed: the small gasket-style casings, springs and other parts that immediately popped out of the player once you unscrewed the back. I went apeshit with that. Eventually sent the player back to Creative (it was two weeks old and the earphone jack was already malfunctioning) and demanded they fix it, which they did after weeks of hectoring and a warning from the Better Business Bureau.

In short, the guys on these boards … picture the arrogant prick in the I.T. Department who treats everyone like an asshole because their computer knowledge isn’t as broad as his. (Which, uh, is why they gave the job to the prick in the first place?) It’s guys like this, who really aren’t very smart. You want to know what true intelligence is? It’s the ability to share your knowledge with other people in a way that let’s them understand and do what you do. Many tech-heads aren’t capable of that deeper, empathetic level of logic. Like so many people, they either guard their knowledge so no one else can have it, or they’re incapable of demonstrating it to anyone else. In a word, no, make that two words, fucking useless. This is the kind of revelation that occurs to you when pop off the back of a $400 MP3 player, springs and other small metallic shit pop out, and you realize you’re in much deeper shit than you were before, thanks to some guy you used to beat up in high school.

Luckily, Sunday morning I found the right driver so that I could at least get my player working again. Still, the computer would not recognize it. What I eventually ended up doing was “rolling back” the version of Windows Media Player to 10, erasing all my Creative software, reloading it and new drivers from the Creative website … and it still didn’t work. I did notice on one of the message boards reference to a non-Creative piece of software that you could buy for $25 that would act as a Windows Explorer type program that would allow you to load up your player. Guess what? I bought it, and it worked. What’s even funnier is that after that software worked, it kicked off some internal (competitive?) switch in the Windows Media world and allowed the Creative software to work again … so now everything is working, although I’m not exactly sure why.

And as far as I’m concerned, the sooner I get those Pop and Country folders copied to my hard drive and burned onto DVD, the better, because I now trust this shit as far as I can throw it. (I can probably throw that player about 50 yards, the laptop about 20. And I may end up doing both before this saga concludes.) I feel like a mental patient in some type of remission, where everything is sane and clear now, but in a few days, I’ll descend back into the darkness of tangled synapses and dementia. Who knows, maybe everything really is all right and I have nothing to sweat. But still, all this week I’ll be getting those thousands of songs onto my machine and then onto DVD discs.

What have I learned? Nothing about Microsoft Windows, which has always been rife with these sort of aggravating blindsides. It’s just mindblowing that they allow this stuff to happen, and more accurately, probably do this sort of shit on purpose in some misguided attempt to thwart MP3 file copying. They’re like that king ordering back the ocean: good luck, assholes. Microsoft is bad, but fucking Creative, they know they have this enormous problem, and do absolutely nothing to address it. Next player I get, I’m not sure what to do. I don’t want to get an iPod; I just don’t like the clunkiness involved with converting everything to those Mac files for the machine. Although I do think their player design and ease-of-use are the best. Their price tag also sucks. But Creative has to have the worst customer service I’ve encountered with any product, much less one you spend hundreds of dollars on. Their actual product is good – my previous 30 MB player is like a tank that will outlast every player I’ll ever have. But their software, the issues with Windows Media Player 11, the total unresponsiveness of the company to address such a key problem: unbelievable. It’s like walking into a fast-food joint, and the pimply-faced kid behind the counter takes a cheeseburger, grinds it into your face and screams, “Fuck you!”.

What I’ve really learned is that music means more to me than I thought it did. It’s easy to take it for granted, quietly sitting in huge gigabyte folders on your player. But when you’re placed in a situation where you’re about to lose all of it in a moment, man, you fight like hell to keep it and take it personally. I want to keep this stuff the rest of my days and am kicking myself now for not backing up files on a regular basis. If you’re reading this and are in the same boat, do it, now, back this shit up, either on disc or external drive. You will be one sorry bastard if you don’t and find yourself behind the eight ball like I almost did this past weekend. If you need to register this in your mind properly, go back to your physical product of choice, be they CDs or records, and imagine a bonfire with Bill Gates in a red devil’s outfit pitchforking every album you own and chucking them into the flames.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Quality of Supermarket Muzak

Something odd happens every time I go to the supermarket now. I should preface by saying I love going there anyway. It occurred to me last night while picking up a few items (coffee soy milk, peanut butter, a big bottle of this weird Greek grape drink “made with real aloe” although it’s pretty much high-fructose junk, but the aloe is real, and I lightly chew on the small bits as I drink this). But the air conditioning, the lighting, the small thrill of spending money, particularly on food that provides sustenance. Even in a bad supermarket, I enjoy myself.

I’m not sure if all supermarkets are like this, but there’s one by my place, part of the Best Yet chain (which I’d never heard of before it bought the old Waldbaums there previously), that has the best muzak I’ve ever heard. It’s not even muzak – it’s clearly either satellite radio geared towards an extremely tasteful oldies station, or some programmed music that really works. In short order, yesterday I heard: “Try a Little Tenderness” by Otis Redding, “Heaven” by The Talking Heads, “The Girl I Knew Somewhere” by The Monkees, “So Alive” by Love and Rockets, “The Wanderer” by Dion and the Belmonts, and “Nights on Broadway” by The Bee Gees. It’s like this every time I go in, a cross-section of hits spanning the 50s to the 80s. The muzak being played in my supermarket is vastly preferable to the predictable sounds that come spilling out of any jukebox in any bar.

Do kids today even know what muzak is? Until a few years ago, every time you walked into a supermarket, elevator or doctor’s office (or were put on hold), you heard muzak: orchestral versions of hit songs that were often schmaltzy or mind-bendingly bizarre in their arrangements. Sometimes, it wouldn’t even be hits – just casual, leisurely orchestral music designed to chill everyone out. Think Lawrence Welk.

But I guess those days are gone. Most public places now, I hear identifiable pop music being played on sound systems. My gym plays the worst fucking music: late 90s pop. I guess they figure the gym is populated mostly by people in their mid-to-late 20s, therefore they play this shitty music from these folks’ teen years. I can’t even identify the artists – if it’s not late 90s, then it’s current. I don’t ever need to hear “Hollaback Girl” again – the though of this woman in her mid-30s singing such a fucking infantile, bad song – it boggles the mind. (It’s “Micky” for today? I always thought “Micky” was a pretty generic new-wave song, made all the worse by its constant repetition over the years. Does anyone listen to that song seriously and enjoy it? Don’t answer that.) Or some band of post-Mickey Mouse Club wiggers in pajamas drawling “yeah, yeah, yo Dre, turn it up” while they croon some horrendous, generic “soul”/vaguely hiphop number. The only thing worse is the occasional emo/hard rock song with some goateed 19-year-old braying like a billy boat with his balls caught in a vice. It’s either that or generic Matchbox 20-style rock, which I’ve never been able to listen to.

That’s the reason I wear headphones when I get on a cardio machine or lift weights. My boxing classes, the instructor favors a mix of hiphop and caribbean soca-style stuff. Really not that awful, but it’s background noise to me. There’s a guy at the Tuesday class, another instructor, who boxes alone before our class begins, and he’s invariably blasting nothing but Eminem at ear-splitting volume while he goes apeshit on one of those long kickboxing bags. I can’t be in the same room – it’s literally uncomfortable to be in the room with the music that loud. Nice enough guy when you talk to him, but his taste in music, man, it blows. And I haven’t quite made the correlation to how loud music improves a workout.

I’m in mild shock that the supermarket is the one public place that “gets” it musically. Then again, I’ve thought about this and have to wonder. At my age, I’m fully aware music made from the 50s to the 80s is now considered “oldies” in some sense. Yes, even all those hip alt 80s bands – they’ve been around two decades now. And never mind that current “hip” bands are pale imitations of them (The Arctic Monkeys? Meh. I hear all these bands critics and hipsters carry on over and think one thing: been there, done that, next.) Music from the 50s and 60s is not “my” music. I wasn’t born in the 50s, and I was a small child in the 60s. “My” music was the 70s and 80s. I’ve gone on listening to pop music since then, have taken in country, blues, big band, soul, reggae, etc, along the way, but naturally the music of my youth is 70s and 80s. And only with the 70s do I allow myself to love some of the really bad popular stuff.

With the supermarket, I’m wondering, what does some kid make of this music? Like it? Recognize that it’s generally much better than the schlock that’s being vomited on him these days? Think it’s annoying? Think it’s bad? I ask these questions, because I cast myself back to the teenager I was in the late 70s, in a supermarket in Pennsylvania, and I can’t imagine anyone liking that music. The caveat is that canned muzak was playing on the system – probably a samba version of “Yellow Submarine.” I know the music has changed since then, but I’m wondering how much I’ve slipped into the role of an older person “digging the oldies” as he shops in a supermarket, as opposed to a lifelong music fan who appreciates the good shit the supermarket is now inexplicably playing on their sound system.

Whatever the case, it’s a strange feeling to realize the fucking supermarket is a much hipper place to hang than most bars these days. They played “Mama Mia” by ABBA last week. What a long, strange trip it’s been with that band. Of course, ABBA are now considered pop geniuses, despite or because of the cheese factor that accompanied their routine: two married Swedish couples singing in phonetic English. I surely recall the 80s and even early 90s, when you couldn’t find an ABBA CD anywhere, they were considered some lost, campy 70s band that rightfully faded away, and the first collection I finally found for them was a greatest hits import from the UK that made the hipster at the record store snicker when he bagged it.

Take it further back in time. Brother M, who had a good-sized collection of 70s pop singles, played records constantly in the basement, where he had a stereo, a chair and a small barrel to put his albums and singles on while he sat there, listened to music and smoked. That was it – his teenage domain. I’d eventually invade his domain by lifting weights down there, but there wasn’t much overlap as he’d head down there later in the evening. His tastes started out cheesy enough, but eventually he got high-faluting by 70s standards, getting into prog rock and Steely Dan, and the kicker, Todd Rundgren and Utopia stuff, some of which is stamped on my brain. (Todd's Hermit of Mink Hollow album is indelibly tied in with Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey as a result of him dogging the eight-track on one our summer shore visits to our uncle’s house there.)

Since Brother M got so heavily into “intelligent” rock (fucker stole my Alan Parsons Project I Robot album), he often found the stuff I was listening to laughable. Queen. ABBA. ELO. I remember him mimicking the idiotic chorus to “Telephone Line” at me (“Doo-wop/ Diddy-doo-do-wop/ Do-wah Do-Lang/ Blue Days/ Black Nights/ Do-Wah Do Lang”), as a not-so-subtle hint that the latest three-song (in outline format) Utopia album was way beyond that silly pop shit. Most of the kids in his graduating class chose Pink Floyd’s “Welcome to the Machine” as their favorite song. (A bunch of stoned idiots, really – that’s not even the best song on that album. And I can guarantee not one of those stoners puts on that song now and thinks, "Ah, the good old days." He thinks, "What the fuck was I smoking the day they passed around the "favorites" sheet for us to fill out?")

Well, one night, I clearly remember, there was a thunderstorm, and I couldn’t sleep, so I went downstairs and for whatever reason, tried to sleep on the sofa. It must have been past midnight, one of those hot/humid nights where sleeping is just not good, no matter what you do. To add to the insomnia, I could hear bass rumblings coming from the basement: Brother M was down there listening to music. Probably just back from various teen misadventures with various troubled youth from the neighborhood.

After about half an hour, a startling revelation occurred to me: he was playing ABBA’s song “Mama Mia” over and over, at top volume. He must have been high, that was my only explanation. If he thought ELO were a bunch of jackasses, ABBA was beneath contempt. (I had all their singles in the 70s … don’t think I ever bought an ABBA album … that only happened in the 90s when their material started being reissued.) I was afraid to go down there, and find some space alien sitting in front of the stereo instead of Brother M.

I’ve kept that secret for almost 30 years. Cat’s out the bag now! Not much of a secret, really, but when I heard “Mama Mia” in the supermarket the other week, I immediately pictured 17-year-old Brother M, in a tie-dye shirt with “Young Americans” on the front in home-made block letters, smoking, huddled in the darkness on a stormy summer night, listening to this great pop song alone in the middle of the night, lest he die of shame for publicly admitting he liked it.

Ended up buying a six-pack, mega-roll of Charmin, shit, almost $10, but closer to $8 with the coupon I had, while I traveled in time from Queens to a small town in northeast Pennsylvania.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

The Dandees

I’m sitting here now watching the NCAA Women’s Softball World Series, as I’ve found myself doing the past few years come early June. Just one of those things that eases into my viewing schedule, and I enjoy watching. The games are usually competitive: a shorter field, more strategy, more singles and home runs, good pitching, and the girls have a strange cult-like way of cheering from the bench that resembles the inspired lunacy you see in Japanese baseball.

(I’ll be watching the Little League World Series later in the summer, although I’m mildly annoyed that they now refuse to show kids crying when they lose … about the most honest moment in any sport.
They’ll show these kids spitting all over the field and grabbing their dicks, emulating their idiot idols in the major leagues, but they won’t show the kids crying. I often find myself rooting for the more well-mannered kids from the Far East.)

But I have to admit, the main attraction to softball is how attractive some of these women are. Those tawny, long-legged ones with great asses: good-looking tomboys. Last year, I was crazy over Cat Osterman, the legendary Texas pitcher who now plays professionally in Cheap Trick’s hometown, Rockford, Illinois. I could wax poetic over her talents, but the truth is I simply loved the way her ass gently quivered in her tight pants after releasing each pitch. And as softball games are televised just like baseball games (with the left/centerfield camera focusing from behind the pitcher’s back as she throws), that meant every pitch. Along with the unexpected eroticism of women’s olympic curling (again, it’s all in the camera angles), two of my favorite women’s sports to watch.

When I decided to write about this, a convergent thought occurred to me. When I go back home to visit Pennsylvania now, I make it a point to go out driving with my Mom as much as possible. Again, with Dad’s passing, I had the concept of time being finite driven home completely, and realized I should spend time with Mom whenever I can. I hadn’t made the connection earlier, but thinking about women’s softball, it opened a door to the memory of Mom and me driving to my sister’s softball games back in the 70’s. She was part of a pre-high school league (the equivalent of teener league), and her team was The Dandees.

If I wasn’t mowing lawns or playing baseball in the neighborhood, I’d pack up lawn chairs (and a few cans of A-Treat Cream and Root Beer sodas) with Mom and head out to watch the Dandees play. At the time, I must have been 10-12 years old, that quizzical age boys reach where they haven’t hardened into their adolescent stance – not as precocious as an eight-year-old, sort of a weird philosophical boy’s age. I think this picture was taken when I was 13, but there it is. What a total fucking dork I was – which I’m now vaguely proud of. That’s one of those 70s t-shirts, with red shoulders, and “Elton John” lettered over a severely-faded picture of his Captain Fantastic album cover. (I recall that album being my favorite for a good few years in the late 70s.) You’re not seeing my striped white tube socks pulled up to my knees and shitty Fayva sneakers. Or my John Denver wire-frame glasses.

These drives we take now remind me of both of us getting in the car on a summer’s evening and heading off to whatever field the girls were playing at. Since their league was unofficial, they had to take space wherever they could find it, which often meant cruising to remote farm fields or Little League practice fields – never the well-kept high-school fields. Thus, the need for lawn chairs, since there were no stands. It was usually just the mothers of these girls, a few fathers, and some kids like me who tagged along because there was nothing better to do.

The local high-school softball coach, Doug, ran the show, and he had that stoic, fatherly way about him all good male softball coaches (there aren’t many) have. The Dandees somehow got uniforms, light blue with orange lettering if I remember correctly, which was a miracle. There was zero money for their league – no admission and no concession stands. (Little Leagues often made a small fortune selling soda, pizza, french fries and ice cream at their games.) It was no frills. I don’t know if the situation has been remedied since then, or if these leagues still exist in the same way, or girls simply start playing softball in junior varsity without any previous leagues.

The Dandees kicked ass. They were a perennial powerhouse in the league, thanks to Doug’s tutelage, and as a result, our local high school was a softball powerhouse for years to come – still is, from what I understand. The key to kids at that age, maybe at any age, is solid, no-bullshit, fundamental coaching, and that’s all the guy did. Taught the basic skills, what to do in given situations, and the girls either bonded and played well, or didn’t.

Understand that they’d be playing on some truly shitty, remote fields, in shorts, so it was nothing for a girl to go home with a long cut up her league after sliding over a rock, or poison ivy after digging a foul ball out of a clump of bushes. Some girls went for cheerleading, or in the 70s getting stoned all the time, but you had those relatively rare girls who dug sports and wanted in on the action. With guys, there were dozens of guys in each class, like me, who played neighborhood sports of all kinds, but didn’t go out for high-school sports for various reasons. With girls, pretty much every one in a given class who was into sports was on the playing field or court.

We’d often make a big deal about “softball dykes” when we were kids, but with the Dandees, I don’t remember that being such a big deal, maybe because we’re talking girls in the 12-14 age range. Some of the girls were on the bigger side and leaning butch, but that didn’t necessarily translate itself into some bulldog image to be ridiculed. I suspect they were like that when they were eight, and are like that now, whatever their sexual preference.

The truth is, the girls seemed to have more fun, a better concept of team work and didn’t have that dickheadedness that so many guys in sports suffer from. I think the worst part of high-school/organized sports for me was the rah-rah bullshit, as opposed to the simple pleasure of just playing, sometimes winning, sometimes losing, and understanding that’s how the world works. There was rarely that sense that you had to lose your cool when you lost, or humiliate a fellow player who fucked up. (It happened sometimes, but that was just as often longstanding personal beefs that came out in a given situation like that.)

It’s interesting to note the issue of sexuality with sports, because I’d be willing to bet lesbianism is an open secret in sports like softball and women’s basketball. It’s sort of just there and accepted, not a big deal. Whereas a gay guy in men’s sports (save figure skating?) is considered a big deal, even now. I’m just not seeing the real relation between competence in sports and a person’s private sense of sexuality – beyond the stereotypes we’re fed growing up.

On Saturday, I was in the gym, hitting the weights as I’ll do a day or two a week when not boxing. As noted much earlier, I lift weights for the simple reason that as we get older, it makes perfect sense to keep our bodies in reasonable condition. Beneath the bluster and hyper-macho bullshit so many serious weightlifters attach to it, it’s just a basic form of exercise that makes sense.

As I was coming into the locker room, there were three blockheads sporting all the usual affectations that lead me to believe these guys are frightened and need to intimidate people with their looks: bad facial hair, lame tattoos (barbed wire around the biceps, dumb tribal tattoos, dragons and snakes on their shoulders, etc.), shaved heads (to cover receding hairlines), bloated, stuffy-looking bodies due to far too much weightlifting and no real physical conditioning. Guys like this over-populate every gym I’ve ever been in – which is fine. Most of them mind their own business, the same way I do.

But these guys were carrying on about “some fag” they just ran into onto the floor, mimicking a stereotypically gay accent and saying things, that implied to me, that this guy, whatever his orientation was, was actually pretty nice to them, but they thought it was a riot that this “fag” must have been “hitting on” them for approaching them and being friendly.

It was the dumbest conversation I’ve heard in awhile. If you haven’t seen the movie Idiocracy (now available on DVD), I’d recommend renting it … and then realizing that people are this dumb now, as the futuristic movie gets into the whole “you sound like a fag” rebuttal to anyone who speaks intelligently. These three guys were standing there, chuckling away, under the assumption that everyone around them was heterosexual and digging their cool verbal takedown of “this fag who hit on them.” There was also the implication of how they were carrying themselves, standing in the middle of the room in towels, trying to make eye contact with guys around them, that they saw themselves as the center of attention in the room, the truthsayers.

What do you say to guys this stupid? That a public display of something like this is just plain embarrassing, and leads me to believe each of these guys has a mental image buried deep in his sub-conscious of him sucking a great big cock? What’s the point? So I can get in a senseless tangle with three deeply insecure Queens juice heads?

I can't stand dealing with self-satisfied pricks like this, whatever the situation. And I really have no burning issue with their opinions – whatever they believe, it’s fine by me, wouldn't want to get into the hornet's nest of mixed signals their bodies and words imply. It’s just that false sense of security and the lack of recognition that they’re in a public place spouting this shit that should be done privately. Sort of like people spouting deeply racist shit publicly (and I’ve seen this go on in all directions) and not having the common decency to recognize they’re way out of line for doing so.

But it’s that lame attitude that drove home the concept to me of sexuality and male sports … and how we could learn a few things from women’s sports like softball. When I watch these softball games, this is one of the under-currents I sense, beneath whatever fleeting attraction I feel towards some of these beautiful women on the field, fully recognizing chances are good some of these girls aren’t batting on my side of the plate! Whatever. The Dandees seemed pretty cool to me back in the 70s, playing their asses off in farm fields for hardly anybody, and it’s a kick now to see something like a televised world series for softball on ESPN. I’d like to think Mom is watching back home, but knowing her TV viewing habits, she has one of those grotesque cop shows on as she works on a crossword puzzle.