Monday, December 7, 2009

Fields of Play [February 17, 2007]

Watching television, I very often find myself thinking that I’m very much funnier than whoever wrote what I’m watching, even though I haven’t even had an agent since I parted paths with that numbskull who was excited about the prospect of optioning my Kate Bush book to a producer who had in a development a biopic about the celebrated American actor Judge Reinhold. I’m not making this up. Looking at the Websites of prospective employers, I commonly expect that they’ll be on the phone to me within minutes of my responding to their advertisement for a designer, pleading with me to join them. As a songwriter, I think of myself as consistently combining more agile, inventive melodies with more sophisticated, expressive lyrics than nearly anyone else I can think of. And not since 1979, when my former best friend’s little New Wave foursome added I’m Going to Jump to its live repertoire, has anyone else seemed to concur.

I worry that I may continue to suffer from my weird childhood sense of entitlement, which went something like this: if I wanted something with all my might, wasn’t it only fair that it should be ceded to me? Though I was dismal at them, I adored sports, and desperately yearned for aptitude. Wishing (and practising until there was no daylight left by which to practise) didn’t make it so, but I was forever pointing out the world’s unfairness to me. When I was 14, I went out for Colt League baseball. Sixteen boys were vying for 15 available uniforms. When I was the one urged to spend the summer doing something else, I railed shrilly against the unfairness of another boy who couldn’t hit the ball out of the infield having been chosen instead of me.

I think back to that experience with even more embarrassment than that which most of my other boyhood experiences evokes. I tried to compensate for my inability to get the ball out of the infield by being the most spirited boy (temporarily) on the team.Tradition dictates that it is the infielders who chant their encouragement to the pitcher, but there was little (very little at the time, mind you) Johnny Mendelsohn out in right field hollering to be heard from deepest right field. I remember the pitcher looking out at me in what may well have been disgust or embarrassment; I was too far away to see, of course.

Same thing happened when I abandoned my dreams of playing second base for the Dodgers or shooting guard for the Lakers and decided instead to be a rock star. I was approximately as good at drumming as I’d been at hitting a fastball, but bristled with indignation whenever anybody pointed it out. Couldn’t they see how much I wanted it?

And then it got even worse, as I allowed myself to be coaxed (not by the others in the band, certainly, but by one of our endless succession of managers) to the fore, to the role of lead singer. I’m a worse singer than I was a drummer, but when anyone arched their eyebrows at me, or put their palms over their ears, I would righteously invoke such much-beloved stars with pitch no more reliable than my own as Ray Davies and Mick Jagger and Lou Reed and Neil Young. Very much the same logic, you see, as when I bewailed another boy’s having been awarded the last of the Colt League team’s uniforms not because I was any good, but because others were nearly as rotten.

One of the principal (and very, very, very few) pleasures of getting older is reconciling yourself to who you really are. It’s taken the fiction of Ian McEwan to give me hope that I may no longer suffer from my earlier sense of entitlement. I read it and laugh aloud at the memory of having ever thought of myself as a writer. There is no level on which he isn’t so superior as to seem to be writing in a different, much more expressive language. And for once I see it!

But back, if you please, to the field of play, where my triumphs have been so few that I savour the memory of feats a less clumsy boy would have forgotten within 45 seconds. At 15, I scored in Orville Wright Junior High School’s annual 9th grade all-stars vs. faculty all-stars game. (If they showed up reliably enough for after-school intramural sports, and did their share of officiating, even boys whose specialty was dribbling off their own feet, such as I, were included on the team, on which everyone was required to be allowed to play, at least briefly.) Late in the game, our coach, sighing from deep in his bowels, probably praying that none of my teammates would pass me the ball, put me in. I was loitering under our basket, praying to be spared humiliation, when a teammate’s shot bounced off the front of the rim into my hands. I looked around frantically for someone to saddle with the awful responsibility of figuring out what to do next, but my teammates were all otherwise engaged. I tossed the ball up. It bounced off the backboard and dropped down through the hoop. Our centre, the precociously tall (6-4, and bigger than any of the teachers!) Somebody Thomas, marvelled, “Way to go, John!” I nearly swooned.

Sometime that same year, some of us boys were playing basketball at a sportsnite, as Orville Wright’s weekly dances were called, for reasons that no one knew. (What a concept: Get all sticky with sweat playing hoops while working up the nerve to ask a girl in the other room to slow-dance with you to Percy Faith’s A Summer Place or Mr. Acker Bilk’s Strangers on the Shore.) Two alpha boys assumed their natural roles as captains, and took turns picking the other eight of us for their respective teams. Picking me eighth, Mr. Jim Bristow took pains to blurt my name almost before the other captain could intone that of the seventh player drafted, making it seem as though he were eager to have me -- an act of gallantry and kindness for which I have wanted to thank him for nearly 45 years.

And now I have.

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