Not a team player

In a story in The New York Times Magazine titled “Sports Meant So Much to Me. Why Wouldn’t My Son Play?,” an exasperated father whose 5-year-old shows scant interest in ice hockey finally blurts, “Boys play sports! That’s what boys do!”

Really? Let’s hope not. If I had a boy I’d want him to play an instrument, not sports. I’d want him to draw, read books and watch great movies, maybe start a band or attend art school. A nightmare for me would be going to youth sports matches, sitting among baying, overwrought parents who take competition absurdly seriously, as if it actually matters. (Maybe it does. What do I know.) 

I understand my minority status on this issue, and I own it. Even when I played youth soccer for six years I felt this way. I was never a great player because I never had the passion for the game, the whole gung-ho enterprise. I am not a competitive person and I don’t get the competitive mindset. I don’t flex my muscles and growl much. Go team. 

Bluntly, I dislike sports, sports culture and, generally speaking, sports fans. There’s the sluggish, unbroken tedium of baseball and football; the slavering disciples, those chest-thumping, bellowing boors; the fanatical tribes with their ugly jingoism and clannish groupthink; and the players’ off-putting egomania and braggadocio that make me cringe. Plus, it’s all so barbarically LOUD. Put down the air horn, Jethro.

The madness of the mob

When I say sports I mean team sports, save for soccer, which I enjoy in small, low-scoring doses. Team sports are my cultural blind spot. I don’t follow them. I don’t know players, leagues or stats. I’m sure March Madness is a wild new cocktail. Body paint is laughable. There’s scarcely a sports strand in my DNA (which stands for Don’t Need Athletics). I’ve tried to get with it, but my brain promptly glazes over. I couldn’t be more bored or turned off. This isn’t anti-sports snobbery; it’s willful ignorance.

What I do go for are individual sports, which is why I prefer the Olympics, replete with solo athletes striving for personal bests. The gymnasts, snowboarders, sprinters, skaters and divers — they excel, they triumph, and do so without group hugs or embarrassing dog piles. It seems there’s a spiritual aspect to these fiercely focussed athletes — it’s them against the world, their minds and bodies zen-like weaponry — and I respect that.

Next to drumming, BMX and snow skiing were my passions as a tween and teen (politely ignore my hapless flirtation with skateboarding). The reckless freedom of flight propelled the joy of these sports. Taking a gnarly jump off a dirt mound on a tricked-out bike or tearing down a mogul-studded mountainside on spindly skis released me from gravity’s fetters — a singular high achieved without teamwork.

The freedom of flight

Team sports simply don’t align with the prickly contours of my personality. For the same reason I shun clubs and organized religion — the social Velcro, zealotry, conformity — I turn away from most sports. People want so desperately to belong. A classic introvert, I don’t siphon energy from others. I go to movies alone and travel the world solo. Reading and writing couldn’t be more solitary. I run with no pack. (And I never run.)

I’m the kid who dreaded gym class, if only because you had to mingle with damp, grunting meatheads who prized bulk over brains. Or so I viewed it then. And, to be clear, I’m not some obese, bespectacled, non-athletic cliché, although I really hate sweating. And jogging. And inflated balls. 

The virtues of team sports don’t escape me. I’m sure they’re salutary. Perhaps only in the Marine Corps are character-building lessons of discipline, perseverance and cooperation more thoroughly drilled into its members. In that, sports is a fine influence on our youth (unless BMX and Black Sabbath are your thing).

I’ll pass. Give me a good book or movie, my drums or a ticket to Spain and I’m thrilled. I’d rather walk the dog than endure the hysterical hyperbole of the Super Bowl. For all its aggressive theatrics, hockey is a powerful soporific. Basketball — pass the remote.

“Boys play sports! That’s what boys do!” exclaims the dad in the magazine article, who, to be fair, quickly recognizes the lameness of his outburst. Google the subject and you get musings like, “Is it OK for guys to not like sports?” The sheer naïveté of that question has me despairing. It’s hopelessly outmoded, fit for 1921, not 2021.

While women’s sports have been making lengthy strides, male athletics seem mired in Neanderthal notions of manhood. Which will lead some to call me a wuss, pansy, pick your pejorative. It’s exactly that kind of attitude — snarling machismo, musclebound showboaters — that makes me abhor sports culture, to write it off as sordid, violent and monstrous. And with that gesture, like a deliberate kick in the shins, I’m pretty sure I’ve been ejected from the game. For good. So good.

Rating life, and everything else

Once a former colleague and I were talking about how overrated most movies are. We were actually astonished and pretty disheartened. (“Avatar”? Christ.)

Then I took a big leap and mused that life is overrated, and I wasn’t really kidding. My pal nodded, even softly repeating my words. We traded wry grins that belied a deep sadness. We went back to work.

Funny thing is, even that sadness was overrated. Because it wasn’t quite sadness so much as bluish resignation, a minuscule sigh. Life, overrated as it may be, goes on.

Isn’t everything sorta, kinda overrated? All right, not everything. There’s family, romantic love, learning, travel, dogs, bourbon, art, Billy Wilder, anything concerning Doritos.

Still, the very question is unnerving. It’s not the most joyous thing to realize I can think of a kajillion things that are overrated, yet I’m sure you can, too. Let’s go for it. I’m totally just spitballing here:

  • empanadas
  • “The Wire”
  • Johnny Depp
  • most rap
  • “The Queen’s Gambit”
  • Sofia Coppola
  • dinner parties
  • all things Harry Potter
  • “Twin Peaks”
  • sports
  • music festivals
  • celebrity/celebrities
  • chicken breast
  • fake breasts
  • almost every Netflix comedy special
  • Twitter
  • zombies
  • Quentin Tarantino
  • road trips
  • “The Office”
  • late Red Hot Chili Peppers, including “Californication” (but not “My Friends”)
  • giant Ferris wheels in major cities
  • “Fargo” (the 1996 movie)
  • Brazilian waxing
  • Dave Eggers
  • Prague
  • politicians
  • “Vertigo”
  • year-round warm weather
  • Colson Whitehead’s novel “The Nickel Boys”
  • David Sedaris 
  • convertibles
  • “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”
  • video installations

Excuse the haphazard tally; I was just getting started. I could have tossed in podcasts and pork rinds. Hell, I think I’m overrated. Put me in the top slot.

The thing with overrating stuff is how impossibly subjective it is. I can say life — or, for that matter, “Titanic” — is overestimated and there’s a 90-plus percentage you’ll disagree. Surely one of you thinks David Bowie is overrated, but I’d argue he is not, to my grave.  

But subjectivity is part of the pleasure. Sports fans (grossly overrated) forever gauge teams and players in heated arguments of gladiatorially subjective rating games. 

And it is a game. In Woody Allen’s “Manhattan,” Diane Keaton and Michael Murphy rattle off members of their own “Academy of the Overrated,” including Vincent van Gogh, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Lenny Bruce and Ingmar Bergman, formidable figures that seem name-checked just to piss off a breed of urban intellectual. (Woody himself goes apoplectic listening to them.)

As a game, cataloging one’s personal overrated (movie, food, person, book) is a cathartic kick. The characters in “Manhattan” are having a giggling ball airing their pointedly curated Academy. Tossing together my list above was fun and purgative, despite its sloppy incompleteness. (Though I did self-edit as I went. I felt some inclusions would offend sensitive readers. Like God, and jellybeans.) 

Is life really overrated? Sometimes, especially when you consider sickness, loss, debt, all those Tyler Perry movies. But it’s underrated, too — getting lost in a European city, succulent bone marrow in a good restaurant, fond memories, Al Pacino roaring his way through “Heat.”

Maybe it’s an even split. Maybe life and all its facets, good and not-so good, are what make things interesting. Maybe Coldplay (overrated) and cold weather (underrated) can coexist. And maybe, really, overrating things is itself overrated.

Random reflections, wryly

I have never done karaoke, and I never will.

I don’t understand runners. I don’t know what in the world they are doing.

Dancing — a faint memory from my roaring twenties that I hope goes away.

Reggae is the devil’s flatulence.

A good, mean rollercoaster mainlines an unparalleled high. 

There is nothing sexier than a comely woman reading a book. 

Cars. I will never get them. They are like refrigerators — necessary appliances.

‘Good dog’ is redundant.

People who purposely don’t travel are unevolved and sad. (And people who say Munich is better than Paris are the most unevolved and most sad.)

Going to the movies alone is the best.

Religion is so radically misunderstood, so repulsively knotted up, we should hit delete and start all over again.

I am constitutionally incapable of playing charades.

Giving money to your alma mater is strictly for suckers.

Unless you’re doing it to a tiny child, the high-five is socially questionable. Fist-bumps — criminal.

There are worse things than tongue piercings. Though I can’t think of anything.

When an adult says they’re “reading” Harry Potter, they’re not really reading at all.

Sushi is sublime. I’ll even eat the grocery store crap.

I‘m thinking of going back to Japan. The more I think about it, the crazier I get.

I have this thing that if someone tells me they don’t read, I want to go back in time to the moment where I hadn’t met them.

Carnivals are disgusting and revolting. I adore everything about them. Even those poor goldfish.

I can’t do the Great Outdoors. It’s the outdoors part that gets me.

I like sharks a lot. If one bit me, it would probably like me too.

Pet rats are like itty-bitty dogs — highly intelligent, funny, trainable, social, responsive. They drink beer and eat anything and, well, everything. Then at about 2-years-old they die and shatter your heart into 10,000 pieces. They’re the best.

If, in a post-apocalyptic world, all sports were wiped out, I wouldn’t care a whit. Take the fans first.

I was thinking of going to a local food festival and parade. Temporary insanity just creeps up on you.

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Good.

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Evil.

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Cool.

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Fool.

Super Bowl? Super bored

It’s weird that I even know who’s playing in the Super Bowl this Sunday. Usually I’m hard-pressed to name the teams because frankly and emphatically I really, truly, rabidly don’t care. But, sure, Sunday’s face-off between the Cowboys and Dolphins should be something super neat-o. 

Yeah, I’m a riot — Rams vs. the Patriots, there we have it. And how that means absolutely nothing to me. Zip. It’s a gaping vacuum in my personal cosmos, a shrieking black hole of wild indifference. I won’t eat wings on Super Bowl Sunday. I won’t watch the inane commercials. Half-time band Maroon 5 makes me alternately apoplectic and very sad.  

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My antipathy to sports is long and legion. They never spoke to me — or is that grunted to me. I think of atavistic grunting when I think of sports, chiefly team sports, for which I reserve the most distaste.

Grunting, yelling and grab-ass — the team sports post-play repertoire. Players, those self-adulating egoists, shoot arms in Nixonian salutes, teeth bared. They thump their chests and leap onto the nearest teammate, bonking helmeted heads together. This is raw joy. Twisted, but still something recognizable as euphoria.

It’s a glee I do not share. I don’t care about that game-winning grand slam, swan-diving touchdown, three-point swoosh. Still, I am not wholly unmoved by athletic grace and skill. I know it when I see it, and I am often impressed. 

For instance, I recognize the poetry in a goal by Cristiano Ronaldo, a breathtaking feat of mathematical precision and almost tearjerking eloquence. I get it. I gasp.   

While athletics aren’t in my DNA, I enjoy the Olympics and I thrill watching individual competitors — track stars, skiers, surfers, gymnasts, cyclists — going for it, fueled by sheer will, determination and transcendent talent. 

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Though never a jock — I was more into rock — I played soccer for years, if pretty reluctantly. I kicked that habit for BMX and snow skiing — individual athletic expressions of reckless speed and airborne glory. Granted, I wasn’t terrific at either sport, but I had a blast. 

I’ve quoted author Roxane Gay before on this subject, and do so again: “As a child, I was uninterested in becoming athletic. I was not a team player. I was a dreamer, something of an oddball loner. I wanted to spend all my time with books.”

That was me. 

Bizarrely but not surprisingly, some sports fans can’t resist equating coming out as a non-fan to coming out out. “Gay” someone wrote on an online message board in response to a man who admitted he didn’t like sports. 

“Are you sure you’re a guy? When was the last time you checked?” wrote another genius. (Tony Hollowell’s book “I Have a Penis and I Hate Sports” is a rejoinder to such nincompoopery.)

This is what we’re dealing with. Homophobic taunts and pea-brained putdowns. Guys must love sports or they’re not entirely manly. Their virility is at stake. The jerry-rigged logic of that racks one’s head like blunt trauma.

Which brings me to what I really abhor about sports, besides the crushing tedium of the actual games: the fans and the culture. Yelling, all that yelling. The militaristic crowds that smack of the obscenely coarse rallies of a particular world leader. The mob mentality and animalistic tribalism that fosters brute behavior, not excluding the rare deadly riot. 

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And the yelling. The endless yelling.

A level-headed sports fanatic wrote online why he thinks some people hate sports: “Sports tend to create a very superficial culture. Athletes are popular for primarily their athletic abilities, not necessarily for their philanthropy, intelligence, personality, or any number of gauges we tend to look for in friends or other role models.”

That’s pretty perspicacious coming from a fan, and I agree with almost all of it. 

Not being a fan is like being excluded from a humungously happening party, and it’s not always the most comfortable spot to be in. It’s akin to not liking “Titanic” or “Avatar” (I find both movies laughably bad) — you become the party-pooper, the hater, the other.

But that’s OK. As long as I don’t have to watch those movies again — or sit through Sunday’s interminable football game, that gigantic neon advertisement for numbskull primitivism and frenzied jingoism — I’ll be fine.

Five irritants that shouldn’t irritate. But do.

1.  The copout final shot in the Chloë Grace Moretz LGBTQ drama “The Miseducation of Cameron Post.” Without resolving anything dramatically, director-writer Desiree Akhavan avoids the hard work of crafting an actual ending, letting her and her characters off the hook by sticking them in the back of a pick-up truck to literally drive off into the sunset, then: fade to black. Such open-ended fade-outs — what will happen to our beloved heroes? — are not only lazy but a rancid cliché of undercooked indie filmdom. (Wait. Was I supposed to say: Spoiler alert!)

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2.  The local wallpaper-tattooed hippie-hipster barista who, when asked how he’s doing, invariably replies, “Livin’ the dream!” (Spoken in a groovy Jeff Spicoli cadence.)

3.  Pro sports. I have no stomach for fans’ foaming-at-the-mouth, chest-thumping, near-nationalistic posturing, the players’ obscene paydays, the blanket machismo and braggadocio, the snarling, whooping competitiveness. It’s a gross, alien world that, save the occasional semi-civilized soccer match, I find revolting. Any artistry is sheer brute. I’m a bit like author Roxane Gay: “As a child, I was awkward, unathletic and uninterested in becoming athletic. I was not a team player. I was a dreamer, something of an oddball loner. I wanted to spend all my time with books.” Then there’s the waspish H.L. Mencken who injects venom: “I hate all sports as rabidly as a person who likes sports hates common sense.” Oh goodie: Football season is upon us.

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4.  If you don’t read the weekly book reviews by Dwight Garner in The New York Times, you are missing some of the freshest, funniest, metaphor-drunk reviews in mainstream newspapers. You are, alas, culturally bereft. But I have a pet peeve (even the best aren’t immune): his unfailing penchant to quote other writers in 99-percent of his essays. Not writers he’s reviewing — that’s expected and apropos — but other writers, as if he can’t think up his own ideas. (“As Hunter S. Thompson said about firearms …,” or “To quote Bob Dylan on heartache …”) It’s a crutch he can’t relinquish. I devour his stuff, but his quotation-happy habit stops me cold. (Yes, I use quotes, too, but I’m not writing for the rarefied Times.)

5.  Middling to bad stand-up comedy specials flooding Netflix. Such jollity as the new “Demetri Martin: The Overthinker,” a depressingly anemic stand-up hour showcasing a once-hilarious comic in full sputter. Also schticking up the streaming service: Patton Oswald, who, on stage, is a peg above pedestrian; Judah Friedlander, a wan, wannabe Mitch Hedberg; the meh Noah Trevor; the slick Iliza Shlesinger, all harpy cutes; the shrill, aggressively pregnant Ali Wong (watch how she practically weaponizes that big old baby bump); and floundering fat-joker Gabriel Iglesias.

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Ali Wong: irritating

But let’s cool down and depart with a smiley-face emoji, tongue out, winking. Netflix tucks sparkling gems into the mix, like Fred Armisen’s joyfully sui generis “Standup for Drummers,” John Mulaney’s knock-dead “Kid Gorgeous at Radio City,” Aussie comedian Hannah Gadsby’s devastating “Nanette” (caveat: she may change your life), and the beyond-words brilliant “‘Oh, Hello’ on Broadway,” starring John Mulaney and Nick Kroll, whose marksman satire is so inspired and athletically sustained, you’ll be craving the most overstuffed tuna sandwich you’ve ever seen. (Watch the show. Then you’ll know.)

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Not irritating: “‘Oh, Hello’ on Broadway,” with Nick Kroll and John Mulaney