“Don’t Make Me Say That Out Loud”

e2axa

The last time I went to church, I did so for the juice boxes.  It was the part of church that I looked forward to most: the after party, so to speak, those 20 minutes or so when the congregation gathers in the outer vestibule and murmurs politely about the sermon or football or what was the best color for a proposed new Ford Winstar minivan.  For adults, the beverage on tap was coffee.

For kids though: look out.  We got fruit punch.  And sugar cookies.  And after a 40-minute sermon about following in the footsteps of Jesus, my friends and I opted for a more secular route.  After all, damnation was just a concept.  And those sugar cookies and Dixie Cups of fruit punch were there for the taking.  Suck my sugar rush, moral relativism!

This week’s episode of Mulaney was the best of the show so far. Several viewers and critics have complained that the show Mulaney does not stack up to the comedian Mulaney’s swiss-watch-in-their-construction stand-up bits. However, while Mulaney’s New In Town special highlighted his talent for articulate observations and a superego informed by a pop culture, the best track by far is his personal narrative entitled “The One Thing You Can’t Replace” in which he tells the story of a crazy high school party which culminated in the bizarre robbery of a family heirloom. It highlights Mulaney’s natural storytelling instincts, a perfect mixture of sincerity, pathos, and wry wit.

In the Name of the Mother, and the Son and the Holy Andre” seemed to be a return to the comedian’s instinctive narrative sense. It wasn’t a perfect half-hour, but I loved that it explored the complicated modern feelings to religion.

Personally, despite my heavily lapsed Catholicism, I find myself jealous of people of faith. And I used to think it was because of the certainty they had towards the world. They subscribed to various philosophies and rules and had whole books and appointed experts who are able to further outline and explain those rules. But now I feel like I would be too bogged down in and aware of the various hypocrisies that accompany every major religion.

And yet jealousy does persist. I think it goes back to the fruit punch and sugar cookies. There was a sense of community and familiarity during those Sunday mornings in the church vestibule. It wasn’t about judgment. It was about community.

Mulaney did a fantastic job of highlighting how no matter how old and logical you get, no matter how much one’s faith my waver in the nitty gritty details, you never fully shake those feelings and teachings enforced when you were a kid.

Advertisements

Ghostbusters Theory

I have this theory that each member of the Ghostbusters team represents a different era of life and I can make my point just by using their introduction scenes.

Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd) represents childhood. In his first scene, Ray busts into the lab where Venkman is “testing” two college students for ESP. Stantz is pure excitement, joy, and childlike naïveté. He doesn’t even pause to consider what Venkman is doing—he is single-minded in his belief and knows, before any actual evidence exists, that ghosts exist.

Peter Venkman (Bill Murray) represents adolescence. In his first scene, as previously stated, Venkman is trying to con an unsuspecting coed into a date. Venkman is the ultimate teenager: horny, caustic, thinks he’s above it all. 

Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson) represents adulthood. Zeddemore’s first line is his character: “If there’s a steady paycheck in it, I’ll believe anything you say.” For Zeddemore, belief and conviction do not factor into his job (ironic, since he is the only member to express his Christianity). He’s there to a do a job, get paid, and have a nice cigarette. Or Twinkie.

Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis) represents old age. Arguably, the smartest and most analytical of the group, Spengler does not have time for anyone or anything else, as evidenced by his introduction: listening to a table through a stethoscope so intently he doesn’t notice Venkman’s hijinks.

There’s no real overall point to this except:

  1. Ghostbusters is a master class in economic characterization.
  2. And since I’m an adult, it means I’m Zeddemore. Which sucks.
 

That Time I Got Drunk and Ordered $60 Worth of ‘Game of Thrones’ Pop Dolls

This is an Arya Stark “Pop” doll. One of my co-workers got it for me for my birthday. It was a nice gift. 

Lately I’ve been trying to make to-do lists and then reward myself with something small and non-food or drink based. 

And then I had a good day. And got a little drunk. 

 

And then ordered way more of those pop dolls. Like 60 bucks worth. 

You will notice that there are two different versions of Tyrion. So how drunk was I? I was two-Tyrion drunk.

Oh and my Jon Snow one is on its way.

5. Write about a babysitting experience.

“Very Special Episodes” were an important part of my moral development. They piped the complex world into my sheltered suburban life and then told me how to feel about what I was watching, which was very helpful. Drugs are bad. Stranger danger is real. Cults will make you hug cute girls (Boy Meets World kind of muddled their message on that one.) 

Although I had never seen, held, or knew anyone who owned a gun, I took the Family Matters episode in which Laura feels threatened and responds by wanting a firearm very seriously. The episode ends with Urkel rapping about the importance of turning in one’s weapon and Freddie Prinze Jr. is tough, as his wont as the credited “Tough Guy”.  

My brother and I watched this episode with our babysitter, Dale, who, as far as we were concerned, was the coolest. He wore flannel and had holes in the knees of his jeans. He let us eat pizza in front of the TV. He watched Tales from the Crypt like it was no big deal.

Dale tolerated our questions to him about guns and gangs and had he ever seen a gun (yes) and whose was it (his buddy’s dad’s) and had he played with it (of course not). Dale could tell this episode would stick with us so he did what good babysitters do: he changed the topic and cheered us up. He probably just flicked the channel over to a John Candy movie, which was a small kind thing, but meant I wouldn’t have nightmares so I was grateful.

About a year later, my mom told us that Dale hadn’t woken up one morning. He’d been rushed to the Emergency Room where his stomach was pumped and the doctors found a plethora of narcotics in his system. 

Dale OD’ing completely shattered my worldview. Hadn’t he been paying attention during those episodes? Why hadn’t someone called one of the many hotlines always listed at the end? But most importantly: I still really liked Dale, which made the whole thing so confusing. He was the best babysitter. And if drugs are bad then is Dale bad? Is he an addict? Do I call a hotline?

Dale survived, but wasn’t allowed to babysit for us anymore. That was it. He didn’t die, go to jail, or even rehab. 

There wasn’t any message or moral. No Urkel rapping or fourth-wall-breaking from an actor or audience cheering the show’s social conscience. The complex world was still there, except, this time, no one was telling me how to feel about it.

4. Did you ever have a paper route?

No. But there was that time I delivered an astro jump to what I’m pretty sure was an orgy.

Allow me to back up.

Summer after high school, I got a job delivering astro jumps, aka “bouncy castles”. The job interview consisted of two questions: “Do you have a driver’s license?” and “Do you have a truck?” Since my answers to both was “yeah” I was hired.

My boss’ name was Jim and he explained what a sweet gig delivering astro jumps is. “You show up at 7. Load up your truck. Make your deliveries. Then you get the rest of the day off until the evening. Then go pick ’em up. You get to sit out the heat, which is pretty sweet, right? You can have a beer or whatever. Wait, hold up, how old are you?”

“18,” I said.

He shrugged. “So you can have a couple Sprites or somethin’. Anyway, I’ll go out with you the first time, show you the ropes.”

The night before my first day, I felt nervous. It would be my first time doing honest-to-God physical labor and I worried I’d look like a wuss. I saw the jumpers on my interview. Imagine big blue plastic bales of rolled hay. And the other drivers all wore Dickies and Oakley shades, while I wore pop punk t-shirts and had to stop every now and then to wipe sweat off my glasses.

My dad gave me some advice. “Look, just ask clear questions, do everything he’s doing. And if you fuck up, its not that big a deal. You’ll learn a lot. First days are always interesting.

Next day, Jim and I loaded up two trucks full of deliveries–an assorted variety of cartoon-themed inflatable play houses, generators and industrial fans, cotton candy machines with corresponding syrups, extension cords, power strips, and a clipboard full of paperwork. Throughout the day I lifted heavy layers of stitched-together tarps, spat on my hands to prevent callouses, and grimaced as the radio played nothing by Tal Bachman and Five For Fighting.

My t-shirt slick and my glasses streaked with salty dribbles of sweat, I felt good. I could do this job.

The last stop took us away from town. Way away. We had one jumper and fan to drop off. Our trucks jostled from pot hole to pot hole down an unpaved dirt road that twisted through a canyon.

We came to to the wooden fence bordering the property and navigated our trucks underneath the quaint wooden archway that served as an entry point.

A few old horses chewed whatever-horses-chew as we surveyed the landscape. “This is weird,” Jim said, breathing the words into the heavy, manure-scented air.

From the garage, we heard a chirpy, perky voice. “Hello! Are you guys here with the jumper.” She was a petite blonde woman, in a tank top and bathing suit underneath. She was maybe mid-30s, although parts of her body were, quite clearly, much younger than that.

All the destinations we’d been to so far had certain touchstones: lots of cheap plastic toys strewn about the set-up spot that had to be cleared away; stacks of colorful plastic plates and cups the size and portion for young children; banners and streamers exuberantly emblazoned with the words “Happy birthday.”

This place had none of those things. No toys, no bikes, no cake, no generic bargain-priced soda in two-liter bottles, no decorations, and absolutely no kids. My boss was right–this place was weird.

I flipped the jumper off the truck, popped it onto the dolly, and wheeled it into the backyard. The back of the house stood in contrast to the rustic front. Instead of horses and dirt and desert vegetation, there was a glistening pool, patio furniture, and well-kept Italian-style stonework. It was less cowboy chic and more Playboy grotto.

It would be a great place for a kids pool party, except for the fact that there were no kids. Instead, three more adults, each displaying sculpted and tanned bodies, sat around a table casually sipping beers.

Once we found a decent spot to set up, I flipped the switch on the jumper and it expanded. It wasn’t a cartoon-themed one–it could best be described as a slide, red and inviting.

“Now, we’re okay to keep this overnight, right?” the woman asked.

“Sure,” Jim said. He drew out the “sh” sound as though his faith in the “customer is always right” ethos was starting to waiver.

We got in our trucks and were halfway back through the archway when Jim’s truck stopped, which meant mine stopped, which meant we were both out again, walking back to the grotto.

“Everything okay?” the woman asked.

“Yeah…” my boss said, “just wanted to make sure you understand the cleaning policy in regards to these jumpers. Don’t want to come back tomorrow and find anything left in there… or stains or whatever.”

The woman giggled and said, “We’ll clean it real good, I promise.”

As we drove off, I thought how my dad was right: first days are always interesting.

2. Describe your neighborhood bully

The strange thing about Mike wasn’t that he was an asshole. That much became clear to my brother and I shortly after we moved in.

The weird thing was that he was also an idiot. He once proposed that air pollution could be solved by instructing the National Guard to stand along the Canadian border and blow the air to the other side. He wanted to re-create Pangea using giant magnets. He broke his ankle one time because he leapt into an above ground pool without checking to see if it was full of water.

Mike’s stupidity was counteracted by his assholery. Two years older than most of the kids on the block, Mike cursed freely through his braces-clad teeth. Whenever we were playing some game in somebody’s front yard, he’d ride his bike by, slowly looping around, like a shark, and toss off some half-hearted homophobic epithet to whoever looked weakest before riding away.

Those were the good days.

He’d pick a target, like all bullies do, and, since he was an idiot, he’d pepper that person with insults, working from generalities to hyper-specificity, finding the entry point like a virus. Once he knew it, he’d use it. Over and over.

Once he found yours, those were the bad days.

My brother and I found some solace in the reminder that he was a dumbass. Whenever he’d say something like “Native Americans and Indians are the same thing?!?” or “I can outrun those wasps” we’d chalk up another tally and feel a little better about the world.

My cousin Alan came to visit us one summer. The sudden presence of an Irish kid, replete with accent, caused a stir among the kids of our little suburban corner of Syracuse, New York.

We used to ride our bikes up to the local golf course, which had the only restaurant accessible to us. Mike came along.

We sat down at the table, standing out like sore thumbs, a dozen sweaty kids to whom the concept of “Free Refills” was very, very exciting.

We ordered burgers and Mike asked, “So, Alan, have you ever had a burger before?”

Alan had tolerated a lot of ridiculous questions about his and my native country–about leprechauns, about Lucky Charms, about all manner of curious, tentative inquiries concerning that guy St. Patrick and his magical snake-banning staff (…or whatever).

Perhaps it was his status as an outsider, or the fact that he would be leaving this country shortly, or maybe Irish kids are just mature or some shit, but Alan had little respect or fear for Mike. Which made his dry wit so perfect, so devastating. “No, Mike,” he said. “In Ireland, we eat rocks.”

It was such a childish, perfect retort. My brother and I smirked, while Mike reacted as though he had just made the anthropological discovery of the decade. “Really?!” he said, his braces fully exposed as his jaw dropped.

Chalk it up. Call it a win.

1. Did You Ever Stick Up For Someone?

There was a social hierarchy to the school bus. We all had assigned seats but the general understanding, the social contract that we had with our bus driver was the older you got, the further towards the back you were allowed to sit. I was aware of the mental fortitude required to be back there. The back was always louder than the front, the bus driver was out of earshot, and there were rumors that some kids scrawled lewd messages on notebook paper and pressed them against the window for passing cars to see.

At the start of my 5th grade year, I had graduated to back-of-the-bus status. We still had assigned seats, but now, with that last third of the bus in our grasp, we were elementary school kings.

My seatmate was this kid Kevin. He was was a gangly and skinny 10-year-old, with unfortunate avian features. Across the narrow walkway sat Paul who earned his cool status because he was the second kid on the block to own a Starter Jacket and, reportedly, decorated his room with a giant Stussy “S” he’d drawn on a piece of butcher paper. Paul’s goal was to make Kevin cry on a daily basis. When ran through all the usual scrawny insults and stick-man puns, he elevated his game to a scientific level. Once he learned in science class that birds had hollow bones, he used it on the way home, insisting, in shrill mocking tones, that Kevin’s bones were hollow too, which was his nose looked so much like a beak. Paul didn’t let up until Kevin cried, quietly at first, then burying his face into his Jansport sobbing.

Paul’s seat mate was Tommy, who, by virtue of pre-pubescent Darwinistic genetics, was considered the coolest kid on the block. He had blond hair. He could play sports. He was the first kid on the block to have a Starter Jacket.

I had been Tommy’s next door neighbor for the past three years and while, objectively, I didn’t have much cool cred to my name, Tommy liked me. He slept over a few times, we went bike riding, and tried to catch the local snapping turtle together. Tacitly, I had Tommy’s endorsement and protection, which sounds crazy seeing as how I was taller than almost all my classmates. I was bigger than them too, which wasn’t helpful. I was big in a wears-a-tee-shirt-at-the-swimming-pool way. And I was far from tough. I sucked at football, wrestling, really anything halfway physical.

I’d had my own brushes with kids like Paul. But now, with just one year left till (what I thought would be) the maturity paradise known as junior high, I was in the back of the bus and thought, “Let Kevin cry. Just be grateful it’s not you.”

That is until the day Paul started in on Kevin’s brother.

“Hey, birdie,” Paul said. “My brother said your brother killed himself.”

Kevin bit his lip and stared at the peeling dark green backing of the seat in front of him.

“Birdie,” Paul said, elbowing one of his friends. “Is it true? Is you brother dead? Did he off himself?”

Kevin started to cry, again. And then he started to quiver. And then Paul’s friends started to ask the same “dead brother” questions over and over again.

I had to say something. I’m neither then nor now good at confrontation. But nobody ever told Paul to stop, so the mere fact that I leaned across the doubled-over body of Kevin and said to Paul, “Dude. Not cool.” was enough to get Paul to stop. For a while.

Kevin didn’t come to school for two days. When he returned, Paul gave him another week of respite before getting bored and starting back with the bird stuff. It was better than the dead brother jokes. I’d whisper to Kevin some encouragement when I saw he was about to cry. It wasn’t much but it got him through the next few months.

Until Spring. Every year we had to do the President’s Physical Fitness test–a week of pull ups, push ups, rope climbing, and capped off with the mile.

I dreaded it and decided that, this year, I wouldn’t sweat it, by literally not sweating it. See, one just needed to complete the mile–they didn’t need to run it. So, I decided to walk the whole thing.

On the bus ride home, all the kids, amped by competition, were comparing times. Kevin, thin as he was, was safe from Paul, seeing as how he’d gotten one of the best times in the grade.

Kevin turned to me and asked what I got.

“I don’t really want to tell you,” I said.

“C’mon, it can’t be that bad.”

“It’s pretty bad,” I said.

“Look, just whisper it, alright?” Kevin said.

I checked over my shoulder. The bus’ loud rumble and rambunctious passengers made it easy for me to quietly tell Kevin: “20 minutes.”

Kevin’s eyes went wide, his mouth-beak split into an agape grin. He spun around the rest of the bus. “Guys!” he shouted, pointing to me, “he took 20 freakin’ minutes!”

Paul, Tommy and what felt like everyone else in the world laughed so hard the bus driver told us to keep it down. Then came the fat jokes, the lard-ass cracks, the heat-seeking self-confidence atom-bombs that only 5th graders can deliver.

Kevin laughed the loudest and longest. I could feel the pecking order shift. I could see the rest of the school year becoming hell. I could see dreading the school bus rides. I could see everything that my elementary school self valued crumble.

So, I did the only thing I could do.

I grabbed Kevin by the back of the neck and flung his face into the dark green peeling back of the seat. I aimed for one of the softer parts, but that wasn’t satisfactory. This was a kid I had stood up for. This was a kid who I tried to help. This was a kid who can, now, go fuck himself. On the rebound, I grabbed the scruff his his neck again and flung him, hard, into the firm top of the seat.

The boys went silent.

I heard Paul whisper, “Dude. Not cool.”

I looked out the window. And ignored the soft crying next to me.

A New Thing I’m Going To Try

I just Googled “100 Journal Topics” which led me to this list.

Sure, it’s an Angelfire page, which seems laughable. I copy and pasted all of them into a Google Doc and I’m going to try to do at least one a day.  This being the Internet, where even I, an English teacher, merely glance over “walls o’ text”, I’ll try to limit my responses between 300-500 words.

I’ll go in order. Here we go.

The Fault In Our Stars Ramble

CONTAINS SPOILERS!

Let me start by saying that there is no doubt that The Fault In Our Stars is a very, very good book. All the cliched statements that usually accompany rave reviews apply to this novel: I literally couldn’t put if down. A page turner. Honest. Real. You’ll laugh and cry.  

It’s funny without being slapstick. Sad without being maudlin. It’s a book about cancer but it’s also this achingly raw portrait of fleeting youth and the things that we see pass us by. In fact, “aching” seems to be the central emotion. You hurt just like Hazel does.

And yet I can’t help but feel that the true tragedy won’t hit most teenagers until later in life.

Eddie Murphy (of all people) once made a joke about haunted house movies that essentially revolved around their flawed premises. All haunted house movies can be solved with three simple words:  LEAVE THE HOUSE. Coming of age or YA literature sort of has a similar problem in that the problems of teenagers are so ridiculously minor when looked at from an adult’s perspective. When I was 15 and read The Catcher in the Rye I thought it was speaking gospel truths about the world, about adults, about how everything is inherently bullshit. Reading it now and the whole thing seems satiric in its overblown worldview. Holden’s a whiner—a spoiled rich, white kid who is maybe in danger twice in the book (once with the lecherous teacher and once with the pimp) and ultimately pays no true consequences for his actions. (This might be debatable depending on how much you read into those opening lines of the novel in which Holden vaguely alludes to being somewhere where he can “take it easy”.)

Romeo and Juliet has some similar issues in which we’re supposed to buy into the fact that it’s this big romantic love story that is so tragic that it, mind-boggilingly, ENDS A MULTI-GENERATIONAL FEUD. That is some bullshit, right there. So let’s just say that Hazel and Gus’ relationship is not Romeo and Juliet’s. Hazel and Gus are far more likable,  level-headed, three-dimensional characters than the Bard’s teens. And yet…

And yet both relationships end tragically. Except when Romeo and Juliet die it’s laughable. It’s dark comedy. It’s a Monty Python sketch.

When Gus dies, it’s heartbreaking. And to know Hazel is only a few years behind him compounds it.

And with that John Green has solved YA’s “haunted house problem.” These are not silly, superfluous teens who fall into an absurdly tragic fate because they are both totally lacking in self-awareness. Hazel and Gus have to believe they’ve found their soulmate because their lives and deaths are no longer in their hands. They have the ultimate excuse to be teenagers, to (ugh) YOLO, to make their first love their last love because it is.

Ever thus the true tragedy, Lebowski. As an adult, I want to stand in judgement of them, just like I do Holden, but instead I find myself hoping that death comes for Hazel soon. Not out of malice, but out of a hope that her love for Gus will remain pure, untarnished, and achingly true.

Anyway, it’s a great book.  You should read it.

The I In Team

Image

Hart High was a football school.  Every Friday night, the bleachers of the local community college stadium filled with fans.  People took high school rivalries seriously.  CIF victory banners hung proudly from the gymnasium rafters.  It was like a little slice of West Texas nestled firmly in suburban Los Angeles.

At 15, I was confident I had the social pecking order figured out, and it boiled down to: football players and everyone else.

Football players all sat in the middle of the quad.  They were the guys who could casually ask teachers about their weekend plans and not come across as weird.  They had girlfriends.

My friends and I didn’t sit anywhere near the quad.  The side entrance to the library was our turf, a safe haven where most of our little crew would play Magic The Gathering.  We didn’t have girlfriends.

The closest one of my friends got to having a girlfriend was Jason Berra and that was just because he had gotten to second base with some girl.  Jas was the type of dude who once stuck a paperclip in an electrical socket just to make us laugh.  He was the guy kept a barbarian sword in his closet for no real reason.  He was the dude with the slightly older, kinda-sorta hot sister who would sometimes wear a bikini around us.

“Man, I’m probably gonna get so ripped this summer,” Jas said as we waited outside the guidance counsellor’s office.  “I’m gonna be like Vin Diesel big.  I’m gonna wear, like, only wife-beaters next year.”

As a nerdy kid who would regularly spend 45 minutes at Blockbuster on a Friday night trying to decide which version of Blade Runner he wanted to rent, I didn’t know why I was going out for football, why I was having my guidance counsellor reorganize my schedule around 6th period practice.  Sure, I wanted to lose weight and, yeah, my brother had played, but I think the real reason was Where the Red Fern Grows.  The scene in that book that always stuck with me was when the main character is hellbent on chopping down this massive sycamore tree.  I mean, he hacks at this thing for like two days until it falls.  That’s what I wanted to do: surviving Hart High football was my own personal sycamore tree, a symbol that I could be just as manly as those jocks.

At Hart, it was an unspoken rule that football players deserved respect.  After all they were the ones who gave up their entire summer in favor of 5 a.m. practices every day, except during Hell Week, during which they had two-a-days in 100-degree heat.  Practices were legendarily difficult, purposefully modeled after boot camp.  Most the severe injuries happened at practices–broken ankles, collarbones, heat exhaustion.  If you survived, it said something to everyone, teen or adult, on campus.

Our first 5 a.m. practice confirmed the every painful rumor Jas and I had ever heard.  It was excruciating painful.  Muscles burned; skin tore, bled and scabbed; shirts dripped with dew and sweat.  And then the puking.  One quickly learned to never eat breakfast before a morning practice, because it would most likely find its way soaking into the roots of the trees on the farside of the field after you projected it from your mouth.  Mine was orange and chunky from scrambled eggs.  Jas’ was pink and milky from Froot Loops.

Coach Toca, a squat man with a booming voice, weirdly pudgy fingers, and an unacknowledged addiction to Slim Fast, laid down what we’d be wearing for every practice: red t-shirt, black shorts; he made sure we knew every drill, so he could reduce his speaking to a series of code words (“barrel rolls” “suicides” “iron men”); and while he didn’t say I needed a haircut, I found myself at the Fantastic Sam’s that afternoon, asking for the number 2 buzz across my scalp.

Around week 3, Jas stopped showing up.  When I called him he said he was sick.  I covered for him, said he had a stomach thing.  Second day, I said he had a family thing.  After three days of no-shows, Toca wanted answers and I was tired of making excuses.

I made a choice: let the kid ditch.  He could suffer.  He deserved it.

Because here’s the thing: when I first started, I thought it was jocks vs. nerd.  Like I was proving something to them by being among their ranks.  But they honestly didn’t care.   Most of the guys on the team were actually incredibly nice dudes.  Kind, supportive, always there with advice.  Bizarrely and unexpectedly, the practice field was the library from The Breakfast Club.  It was the most accepting place on campus, as long as you showed up, did the work, and gave the cliched 110 percent, you were allowed to be there.  So really what it was was those who do a thing vs. those who don’t.

And, as far as I was concerned, Jas wasn’t doing a thing.  So fuck that guy.

The day we got our pads, I stood in line outside of room T-7, an area that doubled as Toca’s office/math classroom.

I grabbed the bag, an awkward nylon sausage bursting with plastic protective gear, and went to the locker room.  I’d never worn a football uniform before.

I looked at myself suited up: pants tighter than most Prince videos, cleats that made it impossible to walk on cement, and the oversized helmet that made me look Rick Moranis’ character in Spaceballs.  But, I felt like I could take on the world in this thing.  It felt like armor, like victory, like unfettered grab-you-by-the-balls manliness.

When I left the locker room, I saw Jas.  He’d missed over a week of practices.  Which meant he was now Toca’s whipping boy.  His punishment: run as many laps as fast as he could for two hours.

Jason took to his sentence with vigor and started jogging.  As he turned into a vaguely person-shaped dot crossing the 5-yard-line on the opposite end of the field, I felt disgusted at him.  Sure, I’d been to his house, swam in his pool, raided his cabinets for Pop Tarts.  But this was Hell Week.  You didn’t miss a practice during Hell Week.  I wanted him to fail.

Toca blew his whistle and practice began.

An hour in and burning hot sweat coated my forehead and stung my eyes, as every muscle in my body ached and screamed.

“Catch ‘em!” Toca yelled.  “Run, lineman!”  He was yelling at me.  I was supposed to outrun–and intercept–and tackle–a receiver who helped the track team win almost every meet.  I failed.

Toca threw a temper tantrum, yelling in the unintelligible jabber of all underpaid athletic coordinators.   He turned to the small speck in the distance, and bellowed: “Jason!  Ten more laps!”  And my mouth slithered into entirely perverse smile.  It was a strange sort of power, power foreign to me, to have someone else bear the brunt of your punishment.  As much pain as I was in, I was happy–downright grateful–that someone felt worse.  God help me, not only did I want Jas to suffer and I wanted to make Jas suffer.

Toca sent the linemen to the corner of the field for barrel rolls.  Jason ran past us, exhausted, dehydrated, barely standing upright with a fresh puke stain down the front of his practice jersey.  And for half a second, I remembered who he was: a dumb, fat kid, who once built a WWF website because he was bored.  I felt guilty and wanted to say something, a word of encouragement, even throw him a subtle thumb’s up.  But I didn’t.  Because this was Hell Week.  This was my sycamore tree.  And I couldn’t stop for anyone.

My brief angst threw off the rhythm of the drill and I didn’t pop off the dirt fast enough.  As a result, a lineman’s boot, weighted down by all the gravity and power of a 200+ pound frame, dug into the back of my bare hand.  I heard a dull crack and I expected a stigmata-esque wound, but the plastic cleat hadn’t punctured the skin.

A loud guttural groan, the closest I could get to screaming through the thick plastic mouth guard, escaped my throat.  The drill came to a stop.

“Line!” Toca screamed, his voice hoarse at this point, “the only reason you should stop–THE ONLY REASON–is that someone has bone sticking out of their body!  Move it!”

Towards the end of practice, Toca called for suicide drills.  We lined up, all of us, including Jas.  Toca blew his whistle and we took off, sprinting towards the ten yard line and back, and then to the twenty and back, and the thirty and back.  It was around the 40 yard line that I started to feel it–my stomach tightened, as if all intestinal muscle fibers seized about it, choking it.  By the time I reached the start again, I collapsed to my knees as hot, vaguely purplish puke dribbled from my mouth and clung to my facemask in thick, gooey, pungent droplets.  I hadn’t puked in weeks and felt betrayed by my own intestinal tract.

“On.  Your.  Feet.  Lineman!”  Toca barked at me.  I willed myself to stand.  My feet staggered towards the fifty yard line.

At the end of practice, Toca blew his whistle and we adjourned to locker rooms.

Everything hurt or burned or ached.  My hand was starting to swell.  And my mask smelled like fresh gastric juice.  I sat on the bench in the locker room, chugging water.  There were still 3 more days of Hell.

When most of the players cleared out, Jas approached me.

“Dude, Toca is such a dick, huh?  I mean, he didn’t have to make me run like that, you know?”

I didn’t say anything.  I couldn’t explain it.  I didn’t want to explain it.  Not that I was any sort of great athlete, but I had done something.  And I didn’t want to go back to doing nothing.

I picked up my pads and walked away.

Jas’ mom wouldn’t let him come back to practice after that and Toca had to concede and let him be water boy.  During the season, he was the annoying kid in khakis who would yell things like “Good hustle, good hustle.”

We weren’t really friends after that.

I still didn’t care about football.  I only played one season and got on the field a handful of times.

But I had succeeded: I had chopped down my own personal sycamore.  I respected the jocks, but was also keenly aware that any kinship started and stopped within 100-yards of the field.  I still didn’t have a girlfriend, over the course of my sophomore year I gained back nearly all the weight I had lost, and I foundmy way back to the side entrance of the library.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.