Monday, October 20, 2014

Pink Gloyd and the Endless River...of Scarves, Marbles and Fake Backstage Passes.

I am a Pink Floyd completest. If the band officially releases any licensed product—music product, I mean—I feel compelled to hastily purchase said product. Frankly, this compulsion is a curse. Why? Besides spending nearly every dime earned as a teenage stock clerk at Kmart on imported bootlegged concerts and rare demo recordings, seriously dwindling returns began in 2011. The Discover Pink Floyd campaign launched that year, and the band released several album-centric boxed sets consisting partly of re-mastered, live and unreleased music. Note the word "partly." Accompanying the compact discs inside the boxed sets is a slew of truly pointless crap: exclusive photo book, 27x27 art print, 5 trading cards, replica tour ticket, replica backstage pass, 9 coasters, 3 marbles with felt carrying bag…AND A SCARF! Yes, a fucking SCARF! Basically, the boxed sets include everything but an officially licensed replica '94 Division Bell tour hovercraft hand painted by Portuguese mermaids.

Upon the launch of the Discover Pink Floyd campaign I was so enthused that the band digitally re-mastered their greatest albums and plundered the vaults to release coveted live and studio rarities that, as a completest, I had no choice but to purchase all the ridiculous Crackerjack toys in hopes that the music was buried somewhere at the bottom. Needless to say, I've never worn the scarf while playing with the marbles in the cold. (The fake backstage pass, however, has allowed me fake backstage at many fake concerts.) Also, needless to say, the music itself remains fantastic. In fact, it might be fantastic-er since being re-mastered. Therefore, the marbles and scarves own a arguably justified place among my bountiful, and still mounting, Pink Floyd collection. (The marbles, scarves, etc. cannot be separated from the boxed sets in which they were originally packaged—completest rules.)

I'm such a staunch completest that I even own a Pink Gloyd Album. The "Gloyd" is a typo…kind of. The band (sans Roger Waters, of course) released their complete discography in the Oh, By The Way limited edition boxed set in 2007. Each album in the set is a mini-replica (there's that word again) of the original pressing of the respective LP. Floyd purists shunned the release because the music itself hadn't been re-mastered since 1992, and the marketing of the set relied solely on the novelty of repackaging the CD's as imitations of the vinyl versions released back when your hippy uncle was spinning his copy of The Wall backwards on his turntable in hopes of decoding Syd Barrett's clandestine underground whereabouts. Regardless, I thought the marketing ploy was clever, and this was Pink Floyd by the way. Eventually, I embarked on an Ebay expedition to unearth the prog rock gem at a reasonable price. I felt damn lucky to purchase the set from a Chinese seller for a mere $58.00, a few hundred less than I'd seen it for sale on the shelves at FYE.

Do you see where this is going?

I received my order from the Ebay seller in good order. However, the boxed set itself seemed suspiciously shoddy: flimsy cardboard sleeves with perforated folds, plastic bag-like inner-sleeves, and slightly pixilated album art. However, I simply thought "Damn. Pink Floyd's standards for their retail merchandise have declined. I'm glad I got this blasted thing cheap." I filed it among my collection to gather cobwebs until I revisited it years later on a whim. I noticed the semi-blurry name printed on the spine of the album More—Pink Gloyd. My reaction? "Man, the band's retail standards have REALLY plummeted!" But the cruel truth eventually trampled me like the marching hammers in The Wall. I had purchased a forgery.

When Pink Floyd frontman and lead guitarist David Gilmour's wife leaked, via Twitter, that the band was secretly recording a new album entitled The Endless River Floyd-heads were equal parts gleeful, and suspicious. The glee was justified. One of the most transformative rocks bands in history—who fans though dead until the leak—was releasing their first album in two decades. The suspicion was probably more justified. Was the main creative force/songwriter of the band's heyday, Roger Waters, involved with the project? Was this going to be a proper album accompanied by a tour, or instead just rehashed duds meant to help sell excess marbles and scarves? Mostly importantly, regardless of all else, would the music at least be comparable to Floyd's best, or what it be complete shit? After all, 35 years have passed since the band's last seminal album, The Wall. In the meantime, the individual band members wrought such emotional and legal misery upon themselves throughout the prolonged breakup and subsequent poo-flinging that fans may only reasonably expect a battered shell of the inventive and dazzling dynamic exhibited onstage and in-studio during the 1970's.

The new album is due to be released on 11/10/14. I haven't heard any of the cuts, bar the three 30 second promotional tasters, but I harbor plenty of festering opinions on the reawakening of Pink Floyd. Before I get to them I'd like to share some thoughts on the band's history thus far. I could probably write a 50 page essay/opinion piece on my personal relationship with the music, especially in my teenage years, but I'll follow with the greatly abridged version:

No band in the history of music, let alone rock-n-roll, has released a more competent, creative, and entertaining string of (5) albums than Pink Floyd, starting with Meddle and ending with The Wall (excluding the movie soundtrack Obscured By Clouds). Some may argue that the Beatles hold that crown, somewhere between Rubber Soul and Abbey Road. Other dim bulbs may claim that Led Zeppelin's first handful of albums (which contain mostly cover songs, actually) are superior. Surely, others will argue any number of bands lay claim, from heralded standard bearers of the genre to underrated indie bands. Some of the arguments may be sound (pun not intended, but maybe it is now), but all those people are flat wrong. The sequence of Meddle, Darkside of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, Animals, and The Wall is unmatched. If you disagree, write your own essay. (Unless you do I'll assume you agree.)

The first Floyd album I purchased was the band's studio finale 94's The Division Bell, oddly enough. I was in ninth grade at the time, and lacked nearly complete perspective on the band, and life too I suppose. I hadn't known the album's lineup lacked their two prior creative frontmen, for instance. Months later, and after several family dinners spent listening to the dining room radio instead of engaging in boring ol' family drivel, I finally realized that that weird song, Another Brick In The Wall Pt. 2, was Pink Floyd. I abruptly purchased The Wall. Upon first listen I recognized a few other tunes as FM radio staples. The lyrics clearly had a deeper meaning that, apparently, and according to teenage peers, was only revealed when one watched the movie version of The Wall while high as a Cessna on grass. I gradually collected every other Floyd album by several means: I dubbed some on tape from my uncle's vinyl collection, I requested others as Christmas or birthday gifts, and I saved money from cutting the neighbors' lawns. Within a year I owed all 14 albums in Pink Floyd's discography. By tenth grade no other band graced my car's JVC tape deck. Friends thought it weird that I only listened to one band. I paid those tasteless naysayers no heed.

Needless to say, I also investigated the history of the band. The founder member and chief creative force of the original incarceration of Pink Floyd/The Pink Floyd/The Pink Floyd Sound/The T-Set/The Megadeaths/The Abdabs/The Screaming Abdabs/Leonards Lodgers/etc. was Syd Barrett. After authoring Floyd's hallucinogenic and highly influential first album The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, Barrett's brain liquefied as a result of LSD and the pressures of fame…well, probably mostly LSD…okay, almost definitely because of ingesting truckloads and truckloads of LSD. Either way, Barrett was probably the quirkiest bastard in rock history, and was a teenage hero of mine. Outside of PATGOD and the five core albums, Pink Floyd's work is suspect, if not experimental and somewhat embarrassingly amusing. The albums More and Obscured By Clouds were both soundtracks that included short, but mostly enjoyable yet generic tracks. Neither stands out. Saucerful of Secrets, Ummagumma, and Atom Heart Mother do stand out, but not always for good reason. Each of the albums contain meandering instrumental pieces that befit a soundtrack to a fever dream. (I recently listened to Ummagumma while watching the movie Haxan. The music and visuals are perfect complements! Google Haxan…you'll understand.) The Final Cut was Waters last album with the band. The lyrics are political and dated, containing references to Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and "a group of Latin American meat packing glitterati." Still, the music is powerful in bursts and the lyrics were clearly penned by no schmuck. Then came the two David Gilmour–led albums, A Momentary Lapse of Reason (an appropriate title) and The Division Bell…two albums clearly penned by a schmuck (well, the lyrics are schmuck-y). Sure, the guitar solos are bitchin' but overall the lyrics are pedestrian, and the music is boring and unadventurous. Imagine the song Comfortably Numb as a scrumptious sandwich. Nearly every song on AMLOR and TDB is also a sandwich, but made with much less nutritious ingredients and tasting like spoiled meat mostly overpowered by Dollar General brand spices. Know what I mean?

Since my days of devoted and unquestioning fandom I have matured enough that I consider the albums outside of the core five, and perhaps PATGOD, as equal parts mediocre and amusing. Many albums by many bands retain that "quality". However, middle-age maturity has also affected my opinion of the core five—I am a bigger fan of those albums now more than ever.

Meddle- This album contains the 24 minute epic Echoes. Sprawling and ethereal, Gilmour's guitar soars and Water's lyrics are more grounded that the spacey concepts of prior work. He conceived of them while peering down at busy sidewalks from a tall building, and watching people buzz about, devoid of human interaction. "By chance two separate glances meet, and I am you and what I see is me." The synergistic effect of Waters and Gilmour at the top of their game is spectacular.

Darkside of the Moon- The big one. The Sgt. Pepper of the 70's. This is the one that hurled the band into super stardom, and ultimately and unwittingly became a catalyst for the themes of the three proceeding albums. It's easy to see (hear) why. Water's lyrics don't leave the launch-pad at all here—death, finances, running against the clock, etc. The transition from song to song is fairly seamless, as is the album as a whole, with weird time structures throughout. DSOTM has been dissected time and again so anything I write would be redundant. You don't have to listen to it in synch with Wizard of Oz. In fact, listening to it in synch with Air Bud 2 is just as cool.

Wish You Were Here- Probably my favorite album, and the most soulful in the band's catalogue. Equal parts yearning, sarcasm, and gnashing spitefulness. Heck, there's even a pinch of humor, "Which one's Pink?" Absence is the theme—both literal absence and the lack of human compassion and emotion in everyday interactions. From the band's perspective, this specifically concerned the music industry cutthroats and their "four star daydreams" in lieu of post-DSOFM success. Shine on You Crazy Diamond is an touching yet mournful tribute to Syd Barrett, who actually walked in the studio (or at least the ghost of his youthful spryness and creativity walked in the studio) during the songs recording. If God existed this would be the prime example of his warped sense of humor.

Animals- 1976 was the "Summer of Hate." Punk had arrived, and so had Jonny Rotten and his I Hate Pink Floyd tee shirts. Although Animals contains three songs longer than 10 minutes each—far longer than three-minute crappy punk songs—Animals is far more punk that Jonny Rotten's wet dreams. Animals is pure vitriol. It's also damn depressing, "Just another sad old man, all along and dying of cancer." Waters categories humankind into three sets: Dogs, Pigs and Sheep. If you're reading this while wearing sweatpants, you're a sheep. If you're reading this while wearing a tie, you're a dog. If you're reading this and you're on the November ballot, you're a pig. Pigs (Three Different Ones) might be my favorite Pink Floyd song. It's bizarre, funky and cynical—everything I hope my son to be one day.

Eat it, Jonny Rotten!

The Wall- When fame had thoroughly curb-stomped Water's soul, he put a two year self-imposed curfew on himself and wrote his magnum opus. I like to imagine that he constructed a couch cushion fort in his living room and did all his writing inside, alone and weeping. The Wall is the tale of a rock star named Pink (duh) who succumbs to the pressures of fame and reinvents himself as a fascist totalitarian. The adoring crowd is his, ah, sheep. The album is not without flaws: the lyrics can be tedious and whiny, the storyline a bit contrived, and the Waters is now clearly the totalitarian of the band itself. But man, The Wall has moments of sheer genius. In terms of beholding and appreciating sheer talent in mediums in which I consider myself somewhat savvy, few works of art move me like the song Comfortably Numb—bar maybe Hunter S. Thompson’s The Edge piece, and George Carlin’s Coast To Coast Disaster routine. Here, Waters and Gilmour are the Gatekeeper and the Keymaster. The song transcends the casual listener (people who think the song is merely a “drug song”), and rewards true fans aware of the intricacies of the moving parts. Water’s “role” in the song is that of a merciless “Doctor Feel Good” who pumps a sick and exhausted Pink full of narcotics to rush him on stage. Gilmour’s role is that of Pink’s drug-fueled hallucination, a nearly unrecognizable boyhood version of himself who delights in such pleasantries as “a distant ship’s smoke on the horizon.” Water’s lyrics shine here; they are pointed and affecting. Gilmour’s two guitar solos are topnotch, and unfortunately a staple of every classic rock station that “Rocks (your town name here) like no other station in the valley.” Prog rock’s Lennon and McCartney earn the comparison, tenfold.

Rogers Waters has publicly distanced himself from the upcoming The Endless River. Syd Barrett died seven years ago so he really distanced himself. But the Pink Floyd marble factory is ramping up production. Using prior context clues, can you guess my pro-rated opinion of the new album? David Gilmour has said that The Endless River will be Pink Floyd's sendoff. Although large swathes of The Division Bell sound as though they were produced by Yanni's first cousin, the album's final song titled High Hopes— clearly written as a goodbye to fans—is surprisingly creative and memorable. Unable to leave well enough alone, the band is releasing a redundant goodbye song, Louder Than Words. Gilmour has stated that the song is meant to reflect the turbulent dynamic of the band, and more importantly, despite the headaches and catfights, how the music endures…or some trite shit like that. What’s more, the lyrics were written by David Gilmour's wife. That's right; the lyrics meant to capture the intimacy of the band's interpersonal relationships aren't penned by ANY member of the band, let alone a former member who is known as a stellar lyricist. Furthermore, the music itself is stated to be largely ambient and instrumental pieces (barf!), with very few sung lyrics. However, one song titled Talkin' Hawkin' features spoken bits by famed astrophysicist Stephen Hawking. (ugh!) What's more, the album is essentially unreleased and unfinished pieces—mostly written by deceased keyboardist Richard Wright—from The Division Bell sessions. The title of the album is clichéd, the album art—a man rowing a boat on the clouds—is clichéd, and this critique is probably clichéd considering the legions of Floyd-heads likely pronouncing their distaste on their own goofy blogs.

Essentially, here's what nubile Floyd fans need to know about the album: The Endless River is the B-side to a mediocre album with music written by a long-dead keyboardist and lyrics written by the guitarist's old lady and sung by Stephen Hawking. And the cover sucks.   

I wouldn't have pre-ordered the album but winter is fast approaching and I need a friggin' scarf. At least that is what this Pink Floyd completest is telling himself.

Shine on you crazy sons-a-bitches.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

If You Say "It is what it is," One More Cotton Pickin' Time...

Seriously, go ahead and say "It is what it is" one more cotton pickin' time and see if I don't wallop you square in your stupid slobbering face hole. BAM! THACK! BIFF! Did you like that? THAT, my friend, will be what "it is".

"It is what it is,"...sounds like a Forrest Gump catchphrase that was edited out of the original script for being too moronic.

But really, just go ahead and say it anyway. SAY IT. Say literally the stupidest thing a highly evolved educated biped with a class C drivers' license can say. I'm not sayin' that I'm the smartest guy in the world, or even that I know more than you. But do you know what I do know? Huh? Do you? I know that "It is what it 'friggin' "is." Let me ask you something to a man. When you say that "It is what it is" do you honestly believe that I think that "It" might be what "It" isn't? If you think that than you must also think that I'm completely incapacitated mentally to the point where I'd be grossly outwitted by a hunk of soggy driftwood. If that's the case why are you bothering to associate with me in the first place? Why aren't you just wiping snot on my shirt or trying to ring me with a hula-hoop from twenty five feet for shits and giggles.

In fact, rather than saying "It is what it is", you'd actually be much, much better served by telling me something—do pray ANYTHING—that "It" isn't. At least there's some chance—albeit an infinitely small chance—that I'd learn new information. Tell me "It" isn't my grandmother's childhood quilt. Tell me "It" isn't a neon green zeppelin airlifting tank tops to Siberia. For Christ's sake, tell me "It" isn't a quarterfinal-round ping pong match between two cross-eyed, jitterbugging pterodactyls playing for an all-expense paid vacation to your dumb drooling face hole that needs thoroughly socked. I fully understand that there's virtually no chance that "it" isn't one of those things, but at least you're telling me more information than exactly ZERO information. God I hate you.

Okay. Okay. Let me cool down a bit. Hold on. I'm cooling down…cooling down. Alright, let's do this. Let's break down the phrase "It is what it is" word for word. Lacking context, the word "It" can literally refer to anything. A snake…a pinwheel…a disassembled unicycle… ANYTHING! Therefore "it" isn't only normally one of the weakest words in the English language; without proper context "It" is utterly worthless. "It" is a useless turd. Okay, on we go to the word "is." Well "It" either "is" or "isn't", but since we have absolutely no idea what "It" is, "It" doesn’t matter if it "is" or "isn't." If each word in the sentence equals one step forward, we're already two steps into a pitch black room. Alrighty, now the word "what." The word is fine all by itself. For example:

"I balanced a walrus on a ballpeen hammer," said Herb.
"What?" asked Pam.
"I said I balanced a walrus on a ballpeen hammer," replied Herb.

See, when Pam said, or asked, "what?" Herb knew he needed to repeat himself. Pam might as well have said "pardon," or "WHAT THE FUCK DID YOU JUST SAY?!" But, the word "what" in the phrase "It is what it is," is a pronoun that stands in for "whatever," or "anything." In other words, the word "what" allows nil headway toward any meaning whatsoever. Thus far, we have a triple nothing, of sorts, which is worse than a triple negative because at least a triple negative is still a conclusive negative. As for the final two words "it" and "is", reread the first half of this paragraph. Not only is the phrase "It is what it is," barren of any whiff of sense in-an-of-itself, the futility of "it is" is duplicated within a measly five words.

The bottom line here is that the phrase "It is what it is," is always—ALWAYS—implied. The phrase is always implied by using the same logic as in the following example: The fact that my necktie is black with squiggly green lines is always implied because, in fact, my necktie is always black with squiggly green lines. Duh!

So, know that you know what you know—dammit all, now you got me doing it—never tell me "It is what it is," ever again. Because, I swear on every bloated jellyfish in the godforsaken Jersey coastline, if you say "It is what it is," one more cotton pickin' time I'll…I'll…wallop in the stupid slobbering face hole who I'll wallop in the stupid slobbering face hole.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

A Perfect Fossil

The early evening sun shone on the front living room window in such a way that the tiny handprint came into focus when Roger tilted his head slightly to the left. He reached through the foot-wide opening between the drapes, but stopped short of smearing the print and ruining the perfect fossil. His eyelids began quivering and he felt the tears surging through his ducts. “Lily,” he said, as he traced the handprint with his finger. Then he curled his fingers into a fist and lightly pounded the windowsill three times. He stared at the handprint until it dissolved into muddled focus, and Frank Turnhauer rushed into focus.

Ah, ol’ Frank Turnhauer-- his slacks hiked to his bellybutton and his safety glasses that looked more like swim goggles -- swinging his weed whacker back and forth and back and forth. This had been the Miller’s neighbor’s every-third-Sunday ritual for at least the last seven years. The weed whacker quieted, and Frank looked up from his front lawn. Roger backed away from the window and out of the sunbeam that split the drapes. The intruding breeze from the open dining room window behind him ruffled the hairs on the back of his head.

The soles of Roger’s loafers pressed into the freshly cleaned Berber carpet. He hated that the assorted marks left by Lily's playtime, and the generous merlot stain, had been scrubbed. Slowly stepping backwards he bumped into the end table, which had been moved about two feet from its prior placement beside the heat register. Resisting the temptation to pull the chain on the table lamp, he leaned down and shuffled through the mail on the table. He read the labels: Sara Miller…Sara Miller…Sara Miller. A few of the names and addresses were handwritten; they were probably Hallmark cards or maybe even personal letters. Rachel always had a thing for snubbing emails and writing letters to friends. Wait! Here’s one addressed to Roger Miller -- Get a new low fucking rate! Roger flicked the envelope onto the carpet, thought twice, and then picked up the envelope and replaced all the mail on the end table exactly as it had been.

A thud emanated upstairs. Roger gasped and pivoted toward the staircase. Jasper the cat darted down the stairs. "Jesus," Roger said as his muscles relaxed. He walked over to the curio cabinet beside the open window in the dining room. Roger wiped his hand over the empty top shelf. No dust. He stared into the empty space and imagined the pictures that had adorned the shelf not long ago, and the happy family of three between the frames. He could still recall details in the pictures: The seagull flying over Lily's shoulder, or the way Rachel's faint suntan barely revealed the pale strip around her wrist where her Gucci watch was normally worn, or his own slightly crooked Kansas City Royal's baseball cap. The breeze sneaking in the open dining room window felt cooler now.

The tears threatened to spill again. Roger began to alleviate an itch on the back of his neck, but then began to dig his fingernails into the skin when the memories became too harsh. Roger pressed down harder, and squeezed the skin on his neck. The pain scattered in all directions, but it didn't relieve the anguish that had been brewing in his psyche. He'd once read that the brain only focuses on wherever the body feels the most pain; his neck stooped throbbing even though his nails punctured the skin and he twisted. "I'm sorry Rachel. I'm fucking sorry," he yelled. "I fucked up."

A women's voice was approaching the front door. A rush of nervous excitement overcame Roger as he pried his fingertips out of his neck. He quickly tiptoed back over the too clean Berber carpet and toward the front living room window. He peeked through the gap in the curtains again, beyond the tiny handprint. A slender brunette dressed in a tight-fitting skirt and suit coat moved toward the porch. Her wavy hair bounced about her shoulders with each oncoming step. Her overtly white teeth were framed by her puffy smiling lips. The early evening sun beamed off the gold badge pinned to her dress coat. "Oh shit," Roger whispered as his heartbeat quickened even more. He hurried through the living room and dining room. Then he sucked in his stomach and squeezed back through the open window -- the same window he'd snuck through after too many last calls and Rachel had already locked the front door.

As the knob on the front door began to turn, Roger slammed the window shut and made his getaway through the back yard. The lady in the skirt and dress coat entered the home, a young couple in tow. "The house is in move-in condition," the lady told the couple. "The owner is highly motivated to sell. She and her daughter are moving to Dallas in a week."

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Red Rubber Ball

The small knife blade pressed against Josh's side. He dropped his briefcase and exhaled a heavy breath that pierced the chilly air. After recovering from a brief blackout, Josh raised his arms without being instructed. Meanwhile, he internally cursed himself for deciding to take the shortcut after work through the alley rather than circumvent the sidewalk under construction in broad daylight.

"Give me your life," said the man in the graying beard, tatty wool cap, and prominent diagonal scar across his left cheek.

"What do you mean?" Josh asked. His feet shuffled atop the storm grate below.

"I mean gimme' your goddamn life." The man grasped Josh's blazer collar with his idle hand. The cell phone bounced about Josh's breast pocket.

Josh reached behind him and wrested his wallet from his back pocket. He opened it and pulled out cash. "Seventeen bucks. That's all I got."

The man snatched it and tossed it behind him. "Fuck the money, man. Money ain't nothing. I want what else is in the wallet." The blade pressed harder beneath Josh's kidney.

"What else? What else? Credit cards? My damn library card? What?"

"Got any pictures?"


"Yeah. Pull out your pictures."

Josh struggled to squeeze his finger and thumb behind his driver's license. He yanked out a photograph of himself, his pretty wife and young son; the family posed in front of house. It was the kind of photo that's mass produced and inserted in frames in retail stores.

The blade gradually drew from Josh's side. Steam from the attacker's pulsating breaths framed his eyes, which homed in on the photo. "You owe me that, man. You owe me that."

Josh chuckled nervously. "Is this some kind of prank?" The blade pressed harder beneath his kidney again. "Shit. I don't know what you're asking."

The man released his grip on Josh's collar, leaving greasy fingerprints. Then he stuck his finger in his captive's face. "Fifteen years ago you dropped a quarter. That's why you owe everything to me."

A smile crept across Josh's face. "You're kidding. Right? A quarter? Listen. I don't know what you're up to but I could probably just kick you in the balls right now and run. And what is that tiny thing you're threatening me with? A pocket knife? You'd barely wound me. Tell you what. How about you just take the money on the ground and let me be on my way?" He shook his head and chuckled again.

The man began to shudder in frustration and barely corralled anger. The blade repeatedly poked Josh's side as though it were telegraphing unintelligible Morse code. "I said fuck the money, man. You ain't listening to me. Twenty one years ago you were walking down Euclid St. I was walking behind you. A quarter fell from your pocket and I picked it up and spent it at Fred's Corner Market."

"Well, it sounds like it's you who owe me money then."

"Shut the hell up." The knife continued to poke. "I bought a rubber ball out of the machine by the counter. A red one. Later that day I was bouncing it down by Bentleyville Creek. It hit a rock and went over the bank and into the water. I went after it but I tripped and fell into the creek. Never learned to swim. I nearly fuckin' drowned. For months afterwards I was afraid to death of water. Was afraid to take a bath. I became the school smelly kid. Got called all kinds of shitty names. Girls paid me no mind. That got into my head, man. Years later, out on my own, I was never right. Made decisions some might call bad ones." He shrugged his shoulders and smiled. "You know, I always hoped that someday you and me would meet in a back alley. What are the chances, huh? Now it comes full circle. If you hadn't of dropped that quarter, I wouldn't have ended up like this. That's how I see it," the man said through gritting teeth.

Josh's eyelids had begun to quiver. His own heavy breaths warmed the bottom of his nose. "What ever happened to the red rubber ball?"

"What the hell does it matter?"

"Please, just tell me what happened to it."

The man sneered. "What do you think? It got away. Floated down the river."

Josh began to slowly move his arm upward. The man pressed the shaking knife harder on Josh's side, but Josh was not affected. Josh reached underneath his dress shirt and pulled out a red rubber ball -- a hole drilled in the center -- that hung from a gold chain. The man's eyes widen. The blade eased off Josh's side. "That quarter was meant for the pay phone to call my mother," Josh said, rolling the ball between his fingers. "I was going to tell her I love her, and say goodbye. I didn't bother asking anyone for another quarter. Instead, I walked down by the creek. I was going to do it there. But first I asked for a sign, for anything, to make me change my mind. And this red rubber ball came floating down the creek." He released the ball and it bounced off his sternum. "My middle name is Red."

A growl emanated from the man's throat as he jammed his knife against Josh's neck. The knife, however small, now seemed as threatening as a sword -- a wrist flick away from severing an artery. Josh closed his eyes and exhaled through his nose as the blade pierced the top layer of skin. A drop of blood seeped down to Josh's collar. The man began to shake profusely, nervous yet excited about retribution. He bent his legs and leaned in closer as the blade rattled in his hand, more and more as he prepared to leverage his total strength into a death swipe. The cell phone in Josh's breast pocket buzzed. The man gasped and dropped the knife, which fell into the storm grade below.

Josh's mother was calling to tell him she loved him too.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Raised on Boring Workaholic Athletes Who Happen to be Super White

When the correspondent from ABC’s Good Morning America asked 10-year-old me what I wanted to be when I grew up I didn’t need too long to think. “Third basemen for the Philadelphia Phillies,” I responded.  I caught my reflection in the lens of the hulking television camera before me; I had burly side-burns and spit chaw, while clad in mid-80’s Phillies home pinstripes. All I needed was about twelve more years developing superior glove-work and defensive range while harnessing the hand-eye coordination and nearly superhuman raw power to lead the National League in home runs eight times and earn an NL MVP nod three times. Okay. Okay. I wanted to me Mike Schmidt. I wanted to me Mike Schmidt because I grew up emulating Mike Schmidt. I grew up emulating Mike Schmidt because he was my father’s favorite baseball player. He was my father’s favorite baseball player because he was the best player on his favorite team. He also embodied the default benchmarks that typified my father’s favorite athletes: he was boring and a workaholic who “played the game right.” 

Why was Good Morning America interviewing me? I was chosen as South Williamsport Area Grade School’s “Whiz Kid of the Year” and was invited to the White House to meet Ronald Reagan with other northern Pennsylvania “whiz kids”. Psyche! My Little League team was coached by a gentleman named Fred Heaps, who had been coaching Newberry Little League teams for nearly 40 years at that point. His most notable achievement was leading a local team to the Little League World Series in 1969. More importantly, he was known for doing kindhearted things like buying baseball gloves for kids who couldn’t afford them, or reminding his teams that he loved them, win or lose. What I remember most about him was how he preached “fundamentals, fundamentals, fundamentals,” and giving me a quarter for answering “Tony Gwynn” when he asked who was the purest hitter in the major leagues. ABC put together a piece on Fred Heaps during the MLB All-Star break in 1988. Coach Heaps passed away two years later, during my final year as a little leaguer.

Goddamn, I miss little league.

I read Mike Schmidt’s autobiography Clearing the Bases: Juiced Players, Monster Salaries, Sham Records, and a Hall of Famer's Search for the Soul of Baseball (ahem) a few years ago. Schmidt lays bare the lack of fun that accompanied his 18 years with the Phillies, from ’72-’89. Essentially, Schmidt put such incredible pressure on himself to be an elite player that he had tremendous difficulty squeezing enjoyment from playing the game. To the detriment of all life’s simple pleasures, his priority was training his body, and developing the mindset, to consistently be at peak potential. The theater of baseball was for the birds. Schmidt didn’t insult the pitcher, or the game, by brazenly flipping the bat after crushing a ball that would clearly sail high over the left-center fence, as Yasiel Puig does today. He didn’t take an hour and a half to leisurely trot around the bases after a home run, as David Ortiz has trademarked. He wasn’t known for childish off-field antics prompting observers to say, “oh well, that’s just Schmidt being Schmidt,” such as whenever Manny Ramirez pulled a boner and the world muttered a collective, and exhausted, “ugh, that’s just Manny being Manny.” (For purposes of supporting the premise, I’m excluding rumors that Mike Schmidt used cocaine during his playing days, or the time he was a guest Phillies color commentator and sprang an off-handed joke about beating his wife. Schmidt’s career has never been typified by drug rumors or “Manny Moments” so I think it’s okay to omit such from the conversation.)

Mike Schmidt the baseball player was exciting. He hit majestic home runs. He was a wizard with the glove as a third basemen. He was one of those generational players who had the capacity to pull off something dramatic or extraordinary at any moment during a game. But Mike Schmidt the personality was boring. And my father loved him. Schmidt was Dad's kind of player. If Mike Schmidt the personality was the equivalent of a career, that career would probably be -- banker. My old man was a banker for the vast majority of his working life. And he was a damn good banker, too. He was promoted to VP of Sun Bank during that glorious ’01 fiscal season. In fact, one could argue that my father was the Mike Schmidt, or at least a Mike Schmidt, of the north central Pennsylvania banking industry; he never brashly flipped his suitcase or trotted a victory lap around the stanchions in the lobby for, ah, any reason that would cause a banker to celebrate. Well, he certainly was no Reggie Jackson. Reggie “Mr. October” Jackson was that flashy post-season world-beater who said things like “I didn’t come to New York (to become a Yankee) to be a star. I brought the star with me,” and “The only reason I don’t like playing in the World Series is I can’t watch myself play.” Sure, Jackson was a terrific player, but what sickening bravado! He should’ve just shut up and played the game, I tell ya'. He was a “turkey,” as Dad was/is prone to calling strutting athletes like Jackson. On the other hand, one of Mike Schmidt’s notable quotes was “Anytime you think you have the game conquered, the game will turn around and punch you right in the nose.” Now that’s modesty, boy. That’s the mindset of a guy who plays the game right. Now where’s my damn briefcase and penny loafers; I gotta’ get to the office and crush a barrel-load of paperwork.

The Phillies' third basemen retired in 1989. About this time people began to notice that I was somewhat rangy for my age. Of course, no expression of my height was without the obligatory “You should play basketball.” So I did, honing what skills I had at the local playground. I also became a fan of the NBA. I hitched my fandom on to my father’s favorite basketball player, Larry Bird. Larry Bird was about as boring a basketball player as could be. I mean, he was exciting, in that he was dominant on the court. But he was boring in the sense that he didn’t finish fast breaks with a tomahawk jam, or hop on the scorers’ table and strike a triumphant pose, or spit catchphrases after the game. Bird? He finished fast breaks by laying the ball off the glass, energized fans by burying turn-around mid-range jumpers, and treated the media like invading bacteria. In fact, the single existing clip of him dunking the ball has appeared ad nauseum on Larry Bird highlight reels. As a matter of fact, his most notable highlight was an otherwise lackluster steal of an inbounds pass; And… now there's a steal by Bird, underneath to DJ and lays it down... What a play by Bird. Oh my God. This place is crazy.

Larry Bird was born in the tiny farm community of French Lick, Indiana. His youth was dedicated to back-breaking manual labor, and, as far as Bird knew, would always be. Even when he accepted a scholarship to Indiana University -- one of the most decorated collegiate basketball programs in the county -- he bailed out when life at a big-time university proved too overwhelming. He later enrolled in the less prestigious Indiana State University basketball program, where he single-handedly took the Sycamores to the NCAA national championship game in '79. Even when Bird's father committed suicide, he was resolute -- kick ass on the court and remain discreet off of it. THIS GUY, my friends, was not only born to win NBA championships, but also to be one of my father's favorite athletes. 

Larry Bird's greatest foil on the court was -- no drumroll needed -- Earvin "Magic" Johnson. Bird and Johnson met in the aforementioned NCAA championship game, and again in the NBA championships 3 times. But the comparison delves so much deeper. Their nicknames alone are clue enough that a discerning mind would recognize which player my father would idolize. 

"Magic": Flashy. Gaudy. "Look at me, everyone."
"The Hick From French Lick": See word "Hick."

However, Magic was the perfect antithesis to Bird. Magic's team was the "Showtime" LA Lakers. Magic's cheesing mug was on billboards and television commercials. Magic bedded nearly as many women as he had amassed career assists. One the other hand, Bird's Boston Celtics mirrored gangly white working class schlubs in both appearance and attitude (yes, Robert Parish did, too). Off the court, Bird's face only appeared in his defender's nightmares. And I'm pretty sure Bird is still a virgin.

Okay, here's the example that perfectly epitomizes Dad's affection for Bird over Magic. While Magic was romancing one woman after another on velvet bedspreads, Bird was putting in his mother's driveway. As a result -- Magic got AIDS, and Bird got a chronic bad back. However, my father respects  Magic. The ex-Laker was, and is, a true professional and a stand-up human being (despite now being part-owner of the blasted LA Dodgers). But whenever Dad is outside on a chilly November morning, building a retaining wall or hauling dead trees, he is Larry "The Hick From French Lick" Bird, but in Dickies work pants and a flannel shirt. 

The other sport my father enjoys is football. His favorite NFL player should be exceedingly easy to guess.  (Dad doesn't pay attention to hockey. His head would explode trying to determine a favorite player because every NHL athlete is either Mike Schmidt or Larry Bird on ice skates, more-or-less. I bet Alexander Ovechkin would be the only guy off the table.) That player is Peyton Manning, duh. Dad has always been a diehard Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts fan, to boot. Peyton Manning is the stereotypical overachiever. His workaholic credentials are legend. In fact, he's such an overachiever that he's ripe for satire -- he shows up to training camp before Valentine's Day; he breastfeeds rookies (in public) until they're mature enough to put on pads on Week One; he's competed in the playoffs with a severed head. 

The Colt's vaunted starting quarterback sat out the 2011 football season due a faulty neck. That year, replacement quarterback Curtis Painter "led" the Colt's to a 2-14 record, ensuring Indianapolis the number one pick in the 2012 NFL draft. The team had since decided to draft a young college quarterback to replace a departing Manning, The two choices were obvious: Standford's la-de-da pocket passer Andrew Luck or Baylor's super-charged field general Robert Griffin III. Both were tremendous talents who had celebrated college careers. Both were also dedicated and hardworking athletes who were, by all accounts, respectful human beings. Dad liked them both. Prior to Draft Day he stated in an email to me "I'd gladly take either Luck or Griffin." Either player seemed fully capable of eventually returning the Colts to the Super Bowl. To Dad, the variables of the quarterback were irrelevant; leading the team to victory was paramount. However, all else being equal, I knew my father preferred Andrew Luck. Why? He was boring. Moreover, Andrew Luck looked and acted as though he were divinely born straight from Peyton Manning's rib. 

During the 2012 NFL season, Luck spearheaded a Colt's offense to an 11-5 record. RG3 did the same at the helm of the Washington Redskins. Both teams made the playoffs. That Thanksgiving, I was watching the afternoon football games at my parents' house with my father when a Subway commercial aired, starring a hamming-it-up Robert Griffin the Third. Dad grimaced and shook his head, and said "See now, that bothers me. This guy is only a rookie and he's doing television commercials." I reminded him that Peyton Manning has literally been in every other friggin' commercial for five years straight. I should've imagined his response; "That's right. But he's already won the Big One." Touche'.

I never grew up to be the baseball player in the camera lens. Sure, I could've grown badass sideburns and stuffed chew under my bottom lip, but I was destine not to be Mike Schmidt. As much as I daydreamed -- even if I'd tried like hell since I was a little leaguer -- I could never have become Reggie Jackon, or Larry Bird, or Magic Johnson, or RG3. I never wanted to be Peyton Manning -- he who sacrificed a puppy to Satan in exchange for a first-round playoff bye, or appeared in enough Starbucks commercials to gain membership into the Screen Actor's Guild.

I'm not upset that I never achieved my childhood dreams. Nevertheless, I do possess the capacity to build a retaining wall or haul dead trees. Hell, I suppose I could even lay a driveway if I really, really want to. In the minds of some, completing such chores is the everyman's version of winning the Big One.