Sunday, June 27, 2010

A Sport for Americans Who Don’t Like Sports

I blew off working out on Saturday to watch the US/Ghana semifinals World Cup match, which as we know now, was a mistake. Besides, it was 90 degrees here with the humidity hanging like a shit blanket over the city, so sitting tight wasn’t such a bad idea. Ironically, I’ve been right in the middle of sifting through tons of African music to create a new collection for the iPod, so I was doing that with the sound turned down. I didn’t really miss those droning plastic horns. (We had those when we were kids in the 70s: a deeply disturbing instrument that made much too loud a noise.)

It’s been easy to miss the World Cup in America. The viewing times are so awful (7:30 am, 10:30 am and 2:30 pm, daily) that most people are going about their days and not willing to break free. When I mentioned watching the match to brother J in rural PA later that evening, he said he didn’t even know it was going on. And didn’t care. The only World Cup that stuck in my head was in 2002, when I was unemployed that summer and had all kinds of times to watch these oddly-scheduled matches. I can safely say that was the only time I got into soccer on any real basis.

And I can safely say most Americans are in the same boat. You would not know that living in New York City, where it’s somehow been decided that soccer is the sport of the millennium, bars packed with fans, more ballyhoo than a Nascar rally in South Carolina.

But it’s for that reason alone – New York City – that I smell bullshit. Actually, there are a number of reasons. I think the most honest one is Lance Armstrong, who has nothing to do with soccer. But there’s something about Armstrong as an athlete that grates on me. He seems like the archetypal cyclist: slight, youngish, doesn’t appear to have a hair on his body once you get below his head, let’s not forget the “Livestrong” plastic wrist bands he sports and millions emulate, wearing his metrosexual biking pants, team shirt and bad sports shades. If you’ve spent time around bicyclists, you know the style and attitude: sheer arrogance. I know Armstrong is a great athlete, with or without blood doping, and overcame enormous odds to dominate the sport. So … why do I picture him as being such a dick?

I don’t know, but can’t you just feel it? And that negative vibe I get from the whole professional cycling world, emanates like rays of the sun from American soccer players. The most visible US player this time around? Landon Donovan. Would be sporting a duckhead haircut, maybe even a Justin Bieber, if he had more hair. You get the impression this guy gets angered easily, or at least he looks that way. He looks like the guy at work who eats salads, gets his body waxed, wears make-up at social events … and nobody likes.

For all I know, he’s a wonderful, down-to-earth guy who would make me do a 100% about-face if I spent time around him. But he puts out the dick vibe. Most of these soccer guys do, to greater and lesser extents. In America, unlike the rest of the world, soccer has the tinge of suburbia/upper-middle-class existence about it. If you were on a “good” soccer team in high school, I’m willing to bet you come from an affluent white suburb. Which is no crime – you probably also had a pretty good lacrosse team and one hell of a debate team – but there it is. It’s like wine, which is so common in Europe that towns people near vineyards will casually drive over to one and fill gallon jugs the same way we fill slushies and Big Gulp Cokes at convenience stores. In America, wine has been co-opted by overbearing shitheads to make the act of drinking it a class distinction. And I’ll give bicyclists and soccer players credit: they’re way down on my shit list compared to wine snobs. How something as basic and normal as drinking wine became this industry geared towards smug elitists, I don’t have a clue.

And as with wine, soccer as a sport has been geared towards a certain “higher” class of fan, who sees himself that way, too. I’m not questioning his fanhood – christ, if you’re an American soccer fan when this World Cup stuff isn’t around, more power to you, you really care about the sport. I don’t doubt there is a sports purity in a genuine American soccer fan, someone who gets the game, has been following it for decades, played it in high school, maybe even in college, probably as an adult in informal leagues.

But I’d also wager, most of these people spilling out of bars in New York the past week or two, damn few of them are these people. You’ll get your usual expatriates from other countries who are into the sport because it’s the national sport of their home country. No beef with these folks at all. Your disproportionately small contingent of American soccer fans. And a lot of guys who look like Lance Armstrong and Landon Donovan, acting like they grew up on a rainy pitch in Manchester and have loved the sport for years, here let me buy you another Lite Beer, but stop me at two because my girlfriend will yell at me if I gain three pounds a week before our trip to Belize.

It’s bullshit, based on class. The whole “why isn’t America more into soccer” issue is bullshit. We just aren’t; we and the world are no worse for wear. Our best athletes gravitate towards sports that are more visible/higher paying that what passes for professional soccer here. A lucky few go to Europe and make a name for themselves in premier leagues. I’ve noted this before. If we took the time and money to make soccer a national priority, and then went into each World Cup and cleaned house for 20 years straight, the world would hate us for it. They’d much rather look down on us for not giving a shit about soccer, “the only true world sport” as I heard some dweeb at the gym describe it the other day.

Utter bullshit. We have the summer and winter olympics to kick world ass at every even-numbered year. How many times have I heard the “America’s lack of interest in soccer is indicative of its insularity” routine? Too many times. If you don’t like America, just say it, it’s OK, no one’s going to kill you over this. The only people I hear saying shit like that are people who don’t like sports in general. And I gather they’ll latch onto something like soccer, or bicycling when the Tour de France rolls around, and pretend they really care about these sports. And they just don’t. It’s just another excuse to bash not America, per se, but the type of American they despise, i.e., white people the size of houses who really love football, baseball and Nascar. (Probably drive SUVs, vote Republican, listen to Rush (Limbaugh), etc. … we all know the drill by heart.)

It’s important to mention Nascar because fan-wise, it’s the polar opposite of soccer. You won’t find metrosexuals in #3 t-shirts piling into NYC bars to watch the Indy 500 on wide-screen TVs. If anything, they’d derisively laugh at the concept. Me? I hate Nascar. Also not big on hunting or fishing. From a small town. Know plenty of people who are seriously into all three. They’re fine. Nothing wrong with them. I will find myself goofing on people when they veer too far into Nascar country – sporting the truly awful and ugly t-shirts and head gear – but I respect the fact that this is their sport, and they genuinely love it. Millions of Americans do.

Why would these instant soccer fans in New York not grant the same sort of clemency to Nascar and treat the major races in the circuit as major events on par with World Cup soccer? I’d say it’s perception. These people perceive themselves as worldly people, in touch with other people from other nations, why, they vacation overseas regularly, have been to (insert major city in Europe/Africa/South America here), have “friends” all over the globe … soccer, like wine, is just something they indulge in to show their worldliness. Right?

I don’t understand why being a Nascar fan would make one any more less worldly … save to say it’s perceived in America as sport for rednecks, and to follow it, chances are good that you, too, are a redneck by extension. It’s just bullshit to me. Bullshit of the worst kind, to attach these extraneous social values to sports. But you better believe, doing so is just as much a national pastime as following the sports themselves. Most countries in the world, soccer is the sport of the people. All you need is a ball, an open field, four cones to set up for the goals, basic gist of where the sidelines are. I’m sure there are countless kids playing this game right now in Africa, or the slums of major South American cities, or in any European country.

They’re in America, too. Soccer will be a big deal in any suburban school district. Even the rural area I’m from in Pennsylvania, you drive around, and you spot soccer fields here and there. I believe there are soccer programs in most school districts back there, although football overshadows them as their seasons are concurrent.

But you know what? You get into cities and more working-class black rural areas, and I don’t think you see anywhere near as many soccer fields. If you do, kids aren’t using them, adults in leagues are. And until you see this with all kids – until the sport is that accepted and sought after at that elemental level – the US will never be a soccer power. Until you reach that part of America that fuels so many topline professional sports, soccer will be what it is here and has been for a long time: a sport for a certain class of people in America not known for producing champion-caliber athletes. (Or at least that’s how I feel every time I see lacrosse on ESPN. Can’t help but think if you put these burly “see themselves as badass” white college guys up against a team of linebackers and safeties from professional football with a month or two of training, you’d see how thin the veneer of that sport is.)

Every Sunday, in the schoolyard behind my place here, there’s an informal Mexican soccer league that’s taken over the asphalt field in the afternoon. More like morning. These guys show up around 10:00 am to make sure they get the field, and they stay until about 4:00 pm or so, playing each other. They go all out: uniforms, their own nets, even their own referees. The sidelines are filled with wives, kids, other players – there are probably 100 people in that lot back there at any given time in those hours. They set up a refreshments tents selling roasted corn, beans and rice, bottles of water and soda in coolers, etc.

I think the locals were a bit freaked out at first but later realized these people meant no harm. The cops made a show of force after this happened once or twice, had a talk with the guys running the league, made sure they cleaned up after themselves, and I can say these people are no more or less of a problem than the local teenage dickheads who hang out there playing basketball or baseball. Yeah, there is sometimes garbage left over, but per capita, a few empty Gatorade bottles for 100+ people, as compared to a few more empty Gatorade bottles for eight local teenage dickheads … do the math. A suburban youth hockey league commandeered the field a few years ago on Sunday, and the parents with those kids were always carrying on like maniacs, you could hear them yelling all afternoon. I’d take these immigrant Mexican soccer players over those boorish Long Island hockey parents any day of the week.

My point being, that field plays host to a bunch of immigrants who love the sport with a passion, who grew up playing it back home, love the game enough to form their own informal league, buy their own jerseys and equipment, and hang out for hours on a Sunday to make sure they have a place to play the game. This is it for them, the highlight of their week.

I’ll know soccer is a big deal when neighborhood kids go to the same lengths to play the game. I just don’t see it happening, especially with the advent of home video games. I gather the only neighborhood kids I see playing basketball and baseball around here are too poor to buy an X-Box. Until you get poor people of all colors on board with this thing, soccer will never be a major sport in America. And I think the disdain we’re trained to have in this country for the poor is greater than the urge we have to create another avenue for them to make a lot of money through sports. It’s odd how so much of sports comes down to money, but it surely does.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

The Men's Room Mirror

For an office, the men’s room at my work place is fairly rank. It’s far too small for 50+ male workers with only two urinals (uncomfortably close to each other) and three toilets. I try not to spend too much time there, but with all-day fluid intake, I’ll usually be in there roughly four times a day. At which time, I will do my thing and get out.

There are few things in life I hate more than taking a dump at work, or any place I can’t do so in absolute privacy. Invariably, the toilet stalls are occupied. Even worse, there’s been rank stuff going on lately with guys tracking shit on the floor, somehow. I won’t point fingers, but I’ve seen some guys go in there with cups of water, which I’m assuming they’re using with the toilet paper, and someone’s getting drops of the stuff on the floor and then tracking it a few steps. On top of the usual: guys with big bellies inadvertently urinating on the floor when they can’t belly up to the urinal. I sometimes take a piss posed like Pete Townshend during a guitar solo to avoid the puddles.

So I surely don’t lurk there … and will never understand guys who do. The guys who take forever in front of the mirror. Grooming themselves, or just taking inappropriately long times to wash their hands, stare at themselves, or make small talk in a place where no sane man wants to small talk. And why is it that it’s always the most average looking guys who take the longest to groom themselves in the mirror? They think if they stand there long enough working the comb, they’ll suddenly become handsome? It aint happening.

But another more mundane thing has encouraged me to spend even less time there. The one thing they did do “right” with the bathrooms was put in industrial-strength lighting. It’s really bright in there, make-up mirror bright. As a result, and in my mid-40s, I keep noticing more gray hairs coming in on my temples. Used to be one or two, now it’s a hair here, and there, and there … hardly a gray fox yet, but this must be how it starts. I don’t see these in other mirrors as most places I catch a glimpse, the lighting isn’t that powerful. But that men’s room mirror is relentless, strips you naked in some sense, like having a light shone in your face during a police interrogation.

I guess I should be glad to have hair! Some guys aren’t as lucky, and that becomes a minor cross to bear, probably something they learn to live with once the reality of it sets in. The prospect of my hair eventually going gray doesn’t sit well with me at all, but it will happen. I’ve always prided myself on looking young in some sense for my age, and gray hair throws a monkey wrench in that ruse. Dad looked young well into his 50s – hair didn’t go gray until his late 50s or so, it seemed like. I look at picture of him in his 40s (which was my childhood in the 70s), and he wasn’t gray at all. I seemed to have inherited his hair, that high hairline, with weird tight/kinky hair. Not quite afro or curly, but even today when I got a haircut, the barber doing so couldn’t run a comb through it.

The first time I saw a gray hair two years ago, I freaked out. Hell, I know some guys who go completely gray by their early 40s, which I’m assuming is stress-related in most cases as opposed to genetics (which they’ll tell you it is). But most guys I’ve known like that are wound up in some sense. While my life is far from stress free, it’s a major tenet of mine to downplay stress and reduce it in my life (as I believe stress and how one handles it are as crucial a health choice as smoking or not smoking). It’s no accident that President Obama is starting to look like Old Man Moses after a few years in the highest-pressure job in the world – I’m willing to bet he’s knocking back a pack a day of Marlboros while he’s at it.

I still have the pack of “Just for Men” hair-coloring product I rushed out and bought that day. Opened, but not used. When you read the instructions on this stuff, man, you don’t want to use it. You don’t just rub it into your hair, and wallah. But that was my initial reaction: panic. I recall two women I worked with, in their 30s, with black hair, having someone point out that each had one gray hair, which was plainly visible when you looked as they both had long straight hair. Fellow female employees gathered around, fawning, oh, honey, nurture it, you’re a woman of wisdom and age now, what a wonderful thing. Yeah, well, I think both of them had the fucker plucked from their heads within the five minutes it took each to rush to the ladies room.

Now that I probably have a dozen or so of these stray hairs? Why bother. Most people don’t even notice. Of course, it makes me wonder about all these cultural icons, particularly musicians, who have full heads of jet black hair and such well into their 60s. Springsteen. Jackson Browne. Bowie. Browne and Bowie still position themselves as looking like teenagers in some photos – then again, both looked like teenagers well into their 30s. Very few rock stars have let themselves go gray – Jimmy Page being a notable exception (but I guess that somehow fits in with his witchrafty image). These guys have obviously been dying their hair for decades: it’s beyond unnatural. I work with guys in their 50s and 60s: nearly all of them have gray hair, either completely or well on the way. They look their age, not like teenagers with wrinkles.

So, I wonder how my vanity compares to theirs, and their inability to recognize nature’s way, whereas I’m seeing, even if you have slow-graying genetics and a penchant for youthful looks, your hair will start showing flecks of grays as you move through your 40s. I could surely dye it if I wanted to, although I’d probably go to the barber and pay him $20 to do it once or twice a year. But that’s not something I’ve seriously considered at this point – simply know it’s an option by reading the barber’s price chart as I got my hair cut earlier in the day.

Gray hair does wonders for some guys – I think George Clooney owes his career to prematurely graying hair. If you don’t believe me, check out the teenage George:

Which makes me want to get into a time machine to kick his ass just for fun. And a young-adult George:

Who sported a shaggy mullet long, long after it was considered in any way hip to do so. He looked like a huge Mr. Mister fan and probably still has the purple velour knee-length coat to prove it.

But give the guy a head of gray hair, have him talk in that condescending “everyone, listen to me, I’m in charge and my tone of voice is better than yours” manner that grates on me in so many of his characters, and you have a guy who’s probably coloring his gray hair even grayer to capitalize on that effect.

Last time I was home, I talked to an old high-school friend about aging and looks, in a bar, no less, at that “changing of the guard” hour, about 9:00 on a Friday night, when the local bars back there turn the lights down and switch over from the classic rock station to the crappy Top 40 one, at top volume so you need to shout to be heard. This woman was a knockout in younger days: I mean model material, just drop-dead beautiful. Now? She’s a pretty good looking woman, but just not on that “everyone stop and look” level of beauty she once had. Just passing time, no great crime. She’s still in great shape, just sort of lost that hard-edged beauty many of us had into our early 30s.

She leaned over and said, “You know how when you look in a mirror, you tell yourself your not that bad-looking, and you can still see how young you are, but when you’re walking through a department store, and see your image on a camera trained on a doorway, you always look like a bag of shit? I’ve come to realize, everyone else sees that bag of shit far more often than you see how good you think you still look in the mirror.”

Of course, as she’s saying this, we’re looking at us in the mirror across the bar. I thought, “I don’t look so bad.” But then I realized the effect she was talking about, how boxy and dumpy I look on a really bad video-cam, how fat I think I always look in pictures (which is why I take so few anymore), the lack of definition I in my face that I once had as a kid (which would be nigh on impossible to maintain, barring a sub-1,000 calorie per day diet). She was right – I’m thinking most people look at me and don’t have that sense of history to see me at 18 or 25, when I was in peak form – they’re just seeing some big-assed, middle-aged guy with zero back story.

Right then, one of the early twentysomething bartenders walked over and asked if I needed another beer. She was pretty, black hair, nice smile, kind eyes – and I noticed, she kept glancing over to make eye contact every few minutes from her seat, so I’m thinking what the hell, maybe I’m not so bad after all? (Or maybe she’s really banking on big tips tonight.)

Those are the kind of head games you play with yourself in your 40s. You’re balanced on the edge of no longer bullshitting yourself about being young, but can still maintain vestiges of youth to the extent that you can turn a young girl’s head if she takes a good look at you and catches the kindness in your eyes. Of course, you should then ask yourself, “What on earth am I going to talk about with a 26-year-old woman?” And realize you could play that game if you want, but there better be one hell of a connection between you and that person to bridge a whole lot of generation gap and life experience. And you also realize younger people have limited senses of aging – that girl could be looking at me and thinking, “He must be around 35 or so” … whereas a middle-aged woman could probably pin me down to within a year or two of my real age.

In any event, I’ve stopped gauging my self worth by how attractive I believe women do or don’t find me. If they do, great; if they don’t, great. It’s nice to feel like eye candy, I’ve known the feeling, but it ultimately doesn’t mean all that much. Our society seems to be based on such an overwhelming lack of self worth that I learned to turn my back on that shit long ago. I remember the days of competing for a beautiful woman’s attention in a bar, but can’t recall why it was such a big deal at the time. If we’re talking some Darwinian rule of attraction and strength, I’m just not grasping it in every-day life. We’re no longer cavemen struggling for survival, and the last guy who bought into that was Hitler with his Aryan fixation (despite not being Aryan at all himself).

It just doesn’t make sense to go around gauging every situation as if it was a globe spinning around your axis, because the world doesn’t work that way. Another life lesson that gets driven home repeatedly as you age. That’s an important distinction to make because it’s a major difference between youth and old age, that you’re just part of the story, not the story, and it helps to see your small place in the world, as opposed to believing you’re going to kick the world’s ass. I should have asked my friend, which do you prefer, a scene like ours in a bar when we were both 23, and she would have had every guy in that bar staring her down, tongues hanging out like overheated bulldogs, or now, just two obviously slightly older people, quietly having a beer and not really drawing all that much attention from anyone?

I guess it depends on how you want other people to see you, what you want from them. How you handle being invisible in some sense, when we’re all not-so-subtly conditioned to think there’s a spotlight on each and every one of us. I’d say passing time and aging are not the ass kickers everyone makes them out to be; they’re simply understanding the truth of how we deal with each other in the world, and what really matters, as opposed to chasing illusions of what we thought really mattered. So much of this comes down to insecurity and vanity, which we all have to some extent. The older I get, the less I care.