All hair breaking loose

Long, luxuriant, disastrous, my hair hasn’t met scissors in five fluffy months. My last haircut was December 20, and I now look like an MLB pitcher, curls Rapunzeling out of a ball cap, or maybe a roadie for Metallica. Either way, the locks are a pox and I need, at minimum, a healthy trim, one that will take no fewer than two and a half hours. Or four. Or six. I could be in the chair through June. 

That’s up to my barber, Miles, who works woolly wonders at Classic Man Cut & Shave, a hiply vintage-style barbershop paneled in wood, adorned with giant mirrors and lined with chubby leather hydraulic thrones. All that’s missing are crinkled copies of Sports Illustrated and Playboy and lollipops for the little ones invariably getting buzz cuts.

I don’t get a lollipop, because I eschew buzz cuts. Oddly, razor ‘dos are five dollars cheaper than scissor cuts here, which I surmise is because razor jobs are all sculpt and shave, using a swath-plowing electric doohickey, while scissor cuts require skill, finesse, a little effort, snip and snazz. In other words, my cut is more of an ordeal than yours.

Miles has my back. And hopefully my front and sides. I see him in a week, and, oh, will he be aghast. At the sight of me, I picture his meticulously groomed face registering fear and dread and an irrepressible urge to acquire a John Deere and a blowtorch.

It will not be pretty, this inexcusably belated trip to the barber. I can see the polished wood floors as he cuts, slowly carpeted in fleece and follicle, all because of my Covid fears, bald laziness and rash experimentation. I should really help him sweep up.

But no. Miles isn’t sweeping. He’s clipping away at my hirsute noggin, silently wondering what in the hell he can make of the mutinous mop. I hope he doesn’t get all clever on me. Haircuts jangle me enough; I don’t need any tonsorial flourishes. Put the razor down.

Miles once dubbed his venue a “cathedral of cuts” — for real — and it’s considering this sentiment that I will solemnly sit, firm and nervous, a watchful eye on the snipped hair tumbling down my shoulders, and do what one does in a cathedral: pray.

The pleasures and perils of reading outside

Reading outdoors is an ambiguous business. I’m an outdoor-reading veteran, a pastime that unites something I adore — reading — with something I barely tolerate — the outdoors. 

Yet occasionally a switch of scenery is required and I’ll dust off a patio chair at a spiffy sidewalk cafe and do the old curl-up with a crisp new paperback. Way back when, I’d try to read old-school newspapers while lounging on the beach, furiously fighting the wispy pages to stay put in the seaside gales. Without fail, a page corner would poke me in the eye and a full page would slap my cheeks. Repeatedly.

That’s how reading outdoors can be ambiguous. I was reminded of this today, a partly cloudy, 64-degree afternoon, when I fancied a book and a breeze would be a peachy idea. I grabbed my reading and hit the backyard deck thinking what a clever boy I am. 

After recently tearing through two new novels — “Whereabouts” by Jhumpa Lahiri and “Second Place” by Rachel Cusk, both ethereal, psychologically astute gems — I’m onto the Ralph Ellison classic “Invisible Man,” which even in its early pages is searing. Propulsive, savage, uncompromising — perfect for a glimmering spring day.

I lasted about 25 minutes out there. The clouds kept stubbornly shifting, sealing off the sky for jacket-ready cool, then opening to a sunscreen-ready radiance. Hopscotching moods, it was atmospheric ADD. 

I sniffled as puffs of wind released flurries of pollen over me, and my bookmark fluttered into the fresh, fragrant mulch. The chilly breezes, swaying shrubs and twisting trees, sent me back inside with grumbling memories of beach vs. newspaper. 

Mother Nature was playing with me, smudging the border between winter and spring, which had its calendrical kick-off March 20. (Summer — insufferable with its perplexing pleasures — arrives June 21, an annual day of mourning.) How else do you explain today’s crazy, veering temperatures? Nature knows how to confound. Watch how she drives meteorologists bat shit.

And she knows how to boomerang me back inside, onto the cushy Eames chair, body gently reclined, feet up, “Invisible Man” in hand, and not a mote of dusty golden pollen to spur the sneeze and wheeze.

This tiff with the elements isn’t over, and its history is rich. Just last week I was reading the Rachel Cusk novel on the deck in fine balmy air, the only irritant a black hairy bumblebee the size of a condor that decided it wanted my friendship. It buzzed and bothered; I swung and swatted. The encounter was a truce.  

I coulda been killed out there. What next while I’m reading amidst flora and fauna, burly bumblebees and erratic skies? Rabid chipmunks? A biblical hail storm? The next-door neighbor trying small talk over the fence? (I’ll take rabid woodland animals over that.)

Summer’s thermal terrors are fast coming and I will spend most of the hot months indoors, hands on the latest talked-up book or dog-eared classic. Inside it’s dark and dank, the only breeze wafting from A/C vents, the only deluge the torrent of words I’m reading, the only vicious creature a scruffy terrier mix named Cubby, who can be effectively disarmed with a hearty belly rub or a good Jack Reacher thriller. Much like me.

Photo phobe

Look at that, I think, watching citizens on the street interviewed on the nightly news. So composed, so poised, so extemporaneously eloquent, fluid and alive, all with a thrusting camera and flood lights in their makeup-free faces, knowing this is a one-shot performance for the big TV show, posterity even. How do they do it?

Me, no. Cameras are my kryptonite. I am so camera shy, from still photos to shaky video, that even in these starved, socially distanced times, I will not do FaceTime or Zoom with even my coolest pals. They know this, so they don’t try much. No. They never try.

I’m ruthless: The last time my own mother tried to FaceTime me — on my birthday — I declined her three times. After that, we had a brittle phone chat. It was a short call.

Cameras are performative devices; they make you assume an artificial skin. I personally find this embarrassing and uncomfortable, and it’s not just because I dislike seeing my own image, although I certainly do. Hammy poses, coerced smiles and theatrical displays of affection — it’s all so plastic and painful. Every time my picture is taken, I feel like I’ve sold my soul to Lucifer. And he wants a refund. 

I used to be quite photogenic, if I may say so. I do not believe this anymore. And so, amid group shots in particular, I try to hide as much as possible. My resulting image is invariably spectral — that of a Native American spirit hovering with ritual solemnity in the background, very displeased with my historical lot. 

I’m a wuss. Not only do I shun pictures, I dread public speaking, including toasts, and prefer to interview others instead of being interrogated. 

Of many offers to be interviewed on television and radio for my last job, I made only two exceptions. I was so fumbly and fidgety when I appeared on TV that I can hardly even remember the incident, except that I hated it. Seeking a segment for “This American Life,” NPR guru Ira Glass interviewed me from New York. Naturally, I choked with nerves. 

Traveling alone, I used to snap selfies for the visual record. I have a lot of those and they’re not bad. Even my distorted self-image can’t ruin all of them. But I don’t do that so much now, yet I have, in these Covid climes, surrendered to FaceTime for the occasional doctor appointment and such. I don’t like what I see. Not one bit.

So how do those regular folks on the news get so natural and comfortable and chatty, besieged by lights and cameras on live TV? I’d dash if a camera crew approached me.

If they indeed snared me, I’d gleam with flop sweat and stammer like a fourth-grader giving a book report. I’d botch the take and wind up on the cutting room floor. Then I’d shamble off, relieved, yet again, that the camera didn’t get me.

Wildlife, suburban style

Baby animals freak me out, startle me, and break my heart. They don’t even have to do anything — stop peering at me with those gigantic moist eyeballs; put down those adorable outsize paws — and they get me. 

The mini-critters make me kind of sad, what with their dewy vulnerability, peach-fuzzy squishiness, frantic suckling and flappy, floppy helplessness. (Human babies don’t have this effect on me. They have iPads and Elmo and rarely become roadkill.)

So I was walking through the big, bright, flora-flung idyll of my emphatically suburban neighborhood (Ward Cleaver, meet Ozzie Nelson), when I spotted a pair of bitty lost creatures on someone’s front lawn. I heard a faint squeak and took in a scene that could only lance my soul: two baby raccoons, blinking in the sunlight, gazing up a nearby tree, wondering, it seemed, where their mama was.

Oh, no, was my first (and second and third) impression: One of the infants looked semi-dead, and I promptly thought I’d stumbled upon guinea pig-sized baby possums, hoping the still one was only playing dead. But no, Lone Ranger markings and all, these were scrawny, handsome raccoons, both very much alive. Desperate and scared, but animate.

Awash with relief, I kicked into mammal emergency mode. But just as I was about to dial animal control, it struck me to ask the home’s owner if they knew about the orphan raccoons on their grass and if anything was happening to rescue them. 

I rang the bell on the big blue porch and a voice on an intercom wheezed, “Yes?” I told the woman my concerns — cute animals are squirming on your lawn, perilously — and she assured me she knew about the hapless wildlife. 

OK, I thought. She’ll take care of it. So I moved on with a twinge of anguish and the haunting notion that my raccoon pals were doomed. Why? Because people are cruddy.

Not me, not when it comes to poor, innocent animals, be it a mangy street cur in Kathmandu or an extravagantly spoiled pet rat named Becky, who drank beer and snarfed, well, everything. 

Or the orphaned baby squirrel I nursed to health with an eyedropper after it fell out of a tree some time ago. A cat almost got that tiny fella, but I snatched it and nestled it in a towel-stuffed basket until a crew of thick-gloved pros took it to a chirpy, scampering squirrel sanctuary. 

Yesterday, the day after my raccoon encounter, I passed the same blue house. Morbidly curious, I scoped out the lawn area where I first saw the stray, ring-tailed souls. They were gone. I envisaged cat-on-raccoon carnage, until I was distracted.

A man was washing his car on the street. “Can I help you?” he said, unsmiling. I asked about the raccoons. “You were here yesterday?” he said, water spluttering from a hose he pointed aimlessly. “You talked to my wife.” Right, I said. 

The raccoons are gone, the man said. Animal control? I asked. Yes, he said. I gave him a thumbs up — something I’ve done approximately six times in my life — and thanked him. He nodded, turned, sprayed.

Oddly, I didn’t feel as good about it as I thought I should. Just picturing those precious siblings, sprawled in the sun, sniffing the air for their parents’ scent, did a number on me. There’s closure, but there’s not.

Somewhere nearby a mother raccoon is looking for her babies.

The raccoons look just like this little guy.

Money can’t buy me love

When I was 14, gangly and clueless, a fellow teen approached me in line for the Big Thunder Mountain rollercoaster at Disneyland. She was cute, shy and giggly, and she slipped me a piece of paper the size of a business card. A shiny dime was taped to the card, which read: “Here’s my number and a dime, you can call me anytime.” 

Hot damn! 

(Less hot: I probably still have this ego-tickling keepsake. What a sap.)

(Lesser hot: The lass was surely carrying several cards around like a rod and reel, fishing for quarry at a teeming amusement park. The indignity.)

If only that’s how things worked in this era of high-tech, horn-dog delivery systems. To hell with Match and Tinder, just hand me your card with a proposition and I’ll take it from there. Prepaid to boot, though I’m sure a dime won’t slice it anymore. Tape a fifty-spot to it and we can talk. 

Though I prefer the above messaging — or, equally effective, the hand-passed mash note in Spanish class — I have resorted to dating sites, if only thrice, to make my intentions known. Each time was met with lavish failure. They just didn’t work out, making me a member of about 20 million date-site suckers.  

There was the young woman on Yahoo!, a dark beauty with cotton-candy cheeks, who advertised herself as an inveterate reader and energetic world traveler, only to prove she’s a deft fabulist and convincing embellisher. 

We met up for drinks and jabber. I asked what she reads and she said Harry Potter (watch my face drop). I press. No, just Harry Potter. We never discussed what I’m reading. Travel? She’s been to New York, once, with her mother. And Canada. The tryst was a bust. Even more so, as she’s a fiend for top-shelf vodka. 

Later, I tried trés-hip hookup hotbed OkCupid. I contacted two women. My gentlemanly overtures — the meek shall not inherit the earth — fetched zero responses. I had no idea what I was doing. Still, I was crestfallen for about 17 minutes.  

I believe in fate, kismet, stuff happening for a reason. Actually I don’t, but stick with me. I had a distant, tormenting crush on a woman who worked at the local arthouse cinema. She didn’t notice me. 

One day, at my favorite outdoor cafe, I spotted her (alone, gripping a Hermann Hesse paperback; be still my beating heart). As if the heavens split, she saw me and we exchanged incandescent smiles. I wish, right there, I had a business card that said, “Here’s my number — just call me!” 

Forget the goddam dime. Life is cheap, and short; love’s even cheaper, and shorter. Loose change has no place in this picture. (I later learned that this melting vision, named Laura, didn’t own a cell phone, just as I didn’t. I should have handed her the card with a roll of quarters and a money order.)  

I was paralyzed, besotted, nerves ajangle. So close, I thought. Make a move, putz!

I shot her a few more smiles, and, helpless about what to do next — approach her? sure! — I got in my car. As I pulled away, we made final eye contact, smiled and waved at each other. I ached with yearning, dramatically misty-eyed.

That’s because this was the classic, tragic missed opportunity. And yet with some tactful sleuthing, I figured it out: I discovered her name, got permission to call her (trusty land line), and soon wound up at her place watching “About a Boy” on VHS. We were a solid couple — books, travel, beer — for more than a year. Not an epoch, but enough time for the earth’s plates to shift.

Success, without a dating service, without a dime taped to a brazen call-me card, without exaggerated CVs and eye-fluttery flirtation — it happens. And it’s the only way I’ll play the dating game. Chance, fate — I don’t believe in them. But sometimes, rarely, it all falls into place. And I cherish that, for it’s no dime a dozen.

Boyhood bedlam

Once, when we were young and evil, my brother, a friend and I decided to dig a pitfall trap for a neighbor kid we disliked on that particular day. 

Right: Three pre-tween boys thought we could shovel a human-size hole in the hard earth, obscure it with, say, palm fronds, then lure our nemesis to the pit, where he would dutifully tumble in and, with hope, writhe in pain and cry for his mama. We might even bury him alive. 

The sheer outlandishness of our artless ruse — we’d seen way too many jungle movies and reruns of “Gilligan’s Island” — betrayed a warped sense of humor and advanced sociopathy. We were, in our way, hardened hellions, backyard scamps in Sears Toughskins and Keds sneakers who lived for the most mailbox-damaging firecracker and perfect pile of dog poop to leave on the neighbor’s porch. 

In hindsight, trapping a helpless child in a deep earthen hole was low on my brother’s list of mayhem; he was busy splatting passing cars with eggs. The high-concept stuff, like the ingenious pitfall trap and starting brush fires, had all the earmarks of a Chris and Gene production — me and my boyhood bestie Gene, a character of almost dangerous precocity, whose rascally misdeeds I chronicled in a previous post

My inner children? Probably.

Boys are bad. If I tell you Gene, who bore galaxies of freckles, threatened to stick an M-80 in a poodle’s rear-end, then I should probably fess up that I peed on a kid’s head from the strategic perch of a tree fort. 

If I describe how my pal Don smashed a huge, harmless tarantula with a rock, I guess I can admit to nicking .22 bullets from my Dad’s small stash, prying them open with pliers and lighting the black powder for a dazzling little dance. In my bedroom.

If I do all that, you either see dumb juveniles paving the way to prison or common boys-will-be-boys behavior that’s as benign as saying boys are made of “snakes and snails and puppy dogs’ tails.” (They are made of that and so much more: fire, lizards, toilet humor and horrors, nudie pin-ups, rock ’n’ roll, illicit cigarettes, contraband beer, and other primal excitements.)  

I was a boy and I can hardly explain our innate appetites for destruction. I loathed team sports but my friends did not, yet we found common ground and ample time to — name it — mutilate frogs, melt “Star Wars” action figures into gooey globs, boil alive bitty Sea-Monkeys, hurl dirt clods into traffic, shoplift rubbers and records. It was wrong, all of it, but oh-so thrilling.

Little girls are awful, too. I can elaborate but prefer a don’t ask, don’t tell stance. Rest assured, the distaff devils are not “sugar and spice and everything nice.” They are funny and cruel, vindictive and viper-tongued. But we know that. And that is why we love them.

From those early years, about ages 7 to 12, I graduated to harder middle-school mischief, the kind where you don’t inhale, cops knock on your car window beaming flashlights, and parents cancel certain privileges. (And of course girls. Don’t ask, don’t tell.) 

Those were darker years, when heedless devilry came with tougher consequences and higher expectations amounting to: Knock this shit off, now. It’s strange, but having a homeless guy purchase you beer sounds almost worse than burying a child alive in a large ditch. There’s about a four-year gap between those two impish delights, and that’s a lifetime at that age. Either way, it’s all kid’s stuff — tutorial, twisted, and so terribly, wonderfully wrong.

When the birthday is just an OK-day

“Death smells like birthday cake.” — Maggie Stiefvater 

My annual birthday plea goes something like this: Don’t get me a birthday cake. Please. And hold the balloons. God, hold the balloons. 

A scarcity of gifts is apt; a token thing (or two!) will do. Cash, books, booze — you’re getting warm. Otherwise, let’s dispense with festive rites, chirpy congrats and that piled frosted sugar loaf festooned with wax and flame. 

Tomorrow I sing the birthday blues with a warble and a plaint (and perhaps a banjo), a tragicomic melody pocked with twangy hiccups and gallows giggles. It’s not so much that I’m getting old. It’s just that I exist. Play in the key of D minor.

Don’t feel bad for me. Antisocial and anti-tradition, I luxuriate in birthday dread, meaning I get an antithetical kick from the “special day” than do normal people who clamor for attention, throw confetti-smattered parties, encourage conspicuous consumption and the lavishing of gifts.  

What then do I do on my birthday? I dwell on death and dying, the brevity of this vast charade, toe-curdling thoughts of cremation and the definitive absence of a higher power. (On that note, blow out the candles.) That’s part jest, but not really, because I reflect on all of that stuff daily. I wake up and see skulls. 

But the birthday is admittedly more frilly. Along with its black Grim Reaper robe, it arrives with cardboard cone hats, noise makers and other “fun” items I’d like to smoosh. It’s practically inescapable, the printed party napkins and peppy paper plates. Friend or family, someone’s going to get you.

I grew out of pointing the spotlight on me very early. As noted in the prior post, the last time I actually celebrated my birthday was on my 13th. It was a modest surprise party, featuring a new puppy, a motley gaggle of guy pals, and some very spirited doorbell ditch across the darkened neighborhood. 

It was fine, but I inexplicably never wanted to do it again. Going out for a drink or a good meal has since marked many a birthday, tiny gatherings all but foisted on me but that I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s not like I slip under the car in the garage and hide on the big day. I’ve just never actively encouraged celebrations. I find them fussy and embarrassing.

People can be movingly kind and generous on my birthday, and I let them, of course. The attention is appreciated but unwanted and unwarranted, All this for little ole me?

It’s pleasant as long as we don’t go overboard. Like cake, which always seems such a waste. No one really finishes their teetering slice and most of the cake (especially the white kind) goes face down in the garbage. Talk about death.

And what’s this? Balloons. Once upon a time, they were blasts of helium hilarity, when anyone could suck and sound like a Munchkin, or Truman Capote. Now they bob in your face, buoyant environmental time bombs, all shimmery mylar and pretty poison.

I look at them, much like the day as a whole, and I think: No, really. Don’t. 

Easter not so easy

We rummage about the day, seeking a good book, ambient pleasures, deep meaning (why is that dog squatting so?), and a fine, frothy whiskey sour. The last first, please.

The days are long, the books are long — like the 600-page Mike Nichols biography I just polished, with joy — and the drinks are long, or, more precisely, tall. Either way, pour. Now. 

Temperatures are amping to the mid-60s, heralding spring’s ominous simmer and summer’s damp, gaseous inferno, both of which, I need not tell you, I abhor. (I only partly exaggerate when I say my favorite utterance is brrr. My second favorite: “I’ll get that.”) 

For some, who I will surely offend, today is all about the embarrassing folly of Easter (Jesus, the great escape artist — a Holy Houdini!), celebrating that boulder-rolling feat of celestial sorcery so magnificent it befits a children’s picture book, ages 2 to 5. And, somehow, the whole zany thing — the tomb, the missing body, the resurrection, the Holy Spirit (insert spit-take here) — boils down to Cadbury’s ooze, Peeps’ chews, synthetic grass and ham. 

What would Jesus do? Probably puke, like most of us.

So hallelujah. Now onto cursing: It’s a sunshiny Sunday, blue and bold and obnoxious, just what everybody delights in, because isn’t life one grand fairyland, dusted in gold, roofed with rainbows and burbling with birdies? 

Actually, it is pretty nice out, for now. I just dread when the sun-worshippers get greedy, Mother Nature listens, and everything gets hot and ruined. (Dear October: Step on it.) Look, get your unflattering beach garb, go to the tropics and leave the rest of us alone. 

Travel. Now? Right. I should be in Paris. But while I’m freshly vaccinated for Covid, France is redoubling its pandemic shutdown. The place is a festering contagion and no one’s going in or out. I bought a flight to Paris in March 2020 for an October trip, and we know how that ended. We sit. We wait. We read 600-page artist biographies. 

Or we read (and re-read) short story collections, like Joy Willliams’ delectably edgy “The Visiting Privilege,” Tobias Wolff’s comfort-foody “Our Story Begins” and the tough, granular realism of Richard Ford’s “Sorry for Your Trouble.”

Art saves. Sort of. I have a birthday coming up and no book of short stories will blunt the bite. Yes, I’m at the point when birthdays make you scrunch up your nose. I’ve been doing this for years; the last time I actively celebrated my birthday was age 13. I believe in getting older as much as I believe in Christ’s Penn and Teller routine in the desert. 

Started as a random riff, this is turning out to be my annual jeremiad about changing seasons, warming and wilting. This week I add a year, perhaps finally becoming an anachronistic artifact, shriveling like a vampire in slashing shafts of sunlight.

I need a flotation device in this sea of self-pity. More to the point, that whiskey sour is sounding pretty terribly perfect right about … now

Symptoms that flu away

Today I got my second Covid vaccine. I’m bracing for a world of agony.

This I know: My sister-in-law got both shots. The first was fine. The second flung her into a tailspin of flu-like symptoms — chills and aches, fever and mild nausea. She wished she had taken the next day off from work. Suddenly a knitted blankie was her BFF. It made a sweet, snuggly tableau.

Her first shot yielded the same aftershocks as my first shot: a wrathfully sore upper arm, like you were punched good and hard where the needle jabbed in. And then someone pinched the spot, with evil passion. 

It’s the second shot, my in-law warns, that will “knock you on your ass.” Cute. Can’t wait.

All this is expected. Docs and the CDC have sternly cautioned that these side effects are common. So this isn’t one of those cockamamie anti-vax screeds. I want the vaccine. I know it works. I think everyone should get it. I’m just a little whiny poo-poo baby.

In Vietnam, I was practically asking for some florid flu-like side effects. Take me to a good cobra restaurant, I hounded my hustler guide, who zipped me around Hanoi on a rust bucket moto-bike to see all, from Soviet-style architecture to a dirty dog-meat market.

He delivered me to a roadside snake farm/restaurant, where slithering caged cobras and other “wild animals” awaited the plate. After cutting out the snake’s still-beating heart and drizzling its bile into a glass of rice whisky — which I was expected to guzzle, and did — the servers dished up a 15-course cobra lunch dazzling in its breadth. The feast is not for the faint of heart. I barely finished my portions. A forkful of exoticism goes a long way.

That night, as a reprisal for my snake-killing gluttony, I was hit with unmistakable flu-y symptoms, including fatigue, body aches and a swimming head. I was told later this was likely from trace amounts of snake venom I ingested at lunchtime. So this, sorta, is what being bitten by a snake feels like? I wondered with weird relish. (What’s worse, swallowing a whole cobra heart or being bitten by said snake? Chat among yourselves.)

Cobra feast

Afternoon report: Four hours after today’s vaccine and I have zero symptoms, not even a sore arm. My sister-in-law strongly suggests I take three preemptive Advils and I do just that. I sit down, crack a book, and await the plague.

The needle wasn’t bad today, though it stung more than my first shot a month ago. Was the first needle smaller? The nurse today told me to take a deep breath when she pricked me, which wasn’t the case last time. On that occasion the needle lanced a stick of butter; today it jabbed raw chicken breast. Now that I’ve wrecked your dinner plans, let’s see if the vaccine is wrecking my evening plans. 

Evening report: It’s now eight hours since the shot. No chills, aches, stomach turmoil or brain tumors. And my arm is miraculously not sore. Am I getting off easy? Will I bolt up in bed at 3 a.m., drenched in sweat, racked with medieval pain? Oh, I did forget to mention this small side effect: My post-shot pee smells like a raging tire fire.

In about two weeks, after the vaccine has sluiced through my veins and cells, I will be immunized against the coronavirus. That’s the plan. If it works, and it will, it’s a miracle of science. Lab coats are sexy.

Late evening report: It’s now 10 hours since today’s needle. My upper arm is pretty sore, right where I was stabbed. This incurable hypochondriac will have none of it. I can see it now: every noxious flu symptom crashing down on me in the next 24 hours. Here’s what I need: fistfuls of Advil, heaps of pity, and a plush knitted blankie.

I’ll update things if developments warrant it. Just know, if I’m in the ICU, I probably won’t be able to type.

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.