Saturday, July 28, 2007

A Meme of Past Glory II

12) I had another strange surge in popularity at another time in another place, when, at summer camp, I won the talent show for telling Steve Martin jokes. My 13) obsession with Steve Martin jokes had started when another member of our school carpool had told them. I had thought he was the funniest person I knew. So stole his game. I got the “Wild and Crazy Guy” album and memorized it and started telling Steve Martin jokes as well. By the time I was in full swing doing this, the other guy had changed schools and was no longer in our carpool, so he was not around to challenge me.

I told jokes I didn’t even get. One mother who sometimes drove the carpool thought I was hilarious and giggled as she drove.

In my second year at summer camp, the summer before seventh grade, I learned that I could gain prestige among my cabin mates by telling Steve Martin jokes while we were getting ready for bed in the evenings. One evening, our counselor told us that a talent show was coming and suggested I tell Steve Martin jokes for it. I didn’t want to at first, but a cabin mate said I should, that he would help me and coach me. So I wrote all the jokes out that I would tell and rehearsed them alone, and did a trial run in front of him. We figured out a point where I would ask the audience a question and he, as a plant, would yell out the answer.

At the talent show, other boys dressed up as women using soccer balls for boobs; they did the thing where one kid sits behind another and extends his arms and legs forward as if they are the limbs of the kid in front of him, and this “dual person” attempts to eat and brush his hair to the general entertainment of everyone watching. I’m sure, at some point, somebody wore a mop on his head. (This was a five-week, all-male camp. *shudder* 14) I went because there was nothing to do at home in the summertime, and because my mom had loved her summer camp back in her day. She had learned to love horses at her camp. 15) I had spent much of my very early childhood playing around a horse farm where my mother would go to ride, and I always thought that maybe, if someone had asked the horses how they felt about being ridden, they would give an answer the horseback riders did not want to hear. Anyway, by the time I went to camp I had already been put on a horse a few times, and I knew I did not like horseback riding. But I had to do it at camp. Thankfully this was not the focus of camp though. It was a general all-round sports, nature, character building camp for boys, with morning Christian devotions (16) this is where I learned the Lord’s Prayer). To be honest, I did get a lot of my character built in a good way there. But I had a lot of bad feelings, cried a lot, and do not associate the word “fun” with the experience. And really, so many of the kids were lacrosse players from the elite private school St. Christopher’s in Richmond, and had brought their own helmets and sticks and pads to camp, that a lot of the rustic atmosphere was undermined.)

A counselor told me later that, when I walked out on the stage, which was really the floor of the small barn which normally served as our wrestling arena (another sport I hated), he thought I was going to be a flop. It’s likely that most of the other audience members, all sitting on a grassy hill outside the barn looking into its open doors, thought so too. But I knew I had my supporter, my plant, with me in the audience, and, as with the ping-pong tournament, it did not occur to me that I might flop. I knew they would all laugh just as my carpool had, as my cabin mates had. And right from the first joke they started giggling. There were moments when I could hardly keep from laughing myself, probably mostly because I was giddy from all that positive attention, but partly because I was realizing anew that those Steve Martin jokes were pretty damn funny.

Mind you, I was never pretending that these were my jokes. I always said, “These are Steve Martin jokes.”

The next day, at lunch, I was awarded top prize for the talent show, which was a Coke. From the Coke machine. This was the best a camper could hope for in those days, at that camp. If you really did something noteworthy, like crawled under your cabin to get the bubble gum wrappers out (and you weren’t doing that as punishment for something else you had done) or rolled in the mud on a dare from a counselor, then you “got a Coke.”

Okay, that’s my meme in two parts.

Continue . . .

A Meme of Past Glory I

1) In elementary school I was always among the last picked for sports teams at recess. After school, I almost never played pickup sports with other kids. Instead I watched Batman on TV in the afternoons, Bewtiched, the Mickey Mouse club. And I read books. When I would go out, I would ride my bike alone and 2) usually did not really want to run into other kids because, perhaps, I was not socialized very well, and also because other kids were pretty much jerks anyway.

In my mid-elementary school years, 3) my main athletic outlet was playing ping ping-pong with my dad before supper. 4) My mom would be teaching piano lessons in the living room, and Dad would come home from work, come down to the basement, put the news on and play ping ping-pong with me. The ping ping-pong table was next to one of the basement’s white paneled walls, and we declared that banking the ball off this wall was legal, as long as the ball then bounced in the opponent’s court.

I’m trying to remember how this ping-pong playing was dovetailed with my own piano practice when I started lessons in fourth grade. Maybe I played ping-pong with Dad from when he got home after 5pm until Mom finished her last piano student around 6pm. Then she would make supper, and I would take my turn on the piano. We were nothing if not a musical household. Before Mom taught, Dad would be the one on the piano when he got home, playing Ragtime.

Ping-pong was fun, piano was not, but 5) I am known, to this day, to dutifully pursue projects ostensibly to deepen myself, even when I lack honest inspiration. I do this, in fact, sometimes when I should be looking for more work. It’s my tragic flaw, the basic thing that keeps me from truly kicking ass.

Our physical education coach at school was also the new soccer coach at Longwood College of which my elementary school (K-7) was a part as a lab school for training new teachers. We called this phys-ed teacher “Mr. P” because we could not pronounce his eastern European family name. He was from the Northeast and gave us the impression that folks from there all talked kind of tough and preceded every sentence with “’Ey!” as in, “’Ey Joey, quit foolin’ around.” My classmates who lived in Farmville, VA, where all this schooling was taking place, said that they could hear his shouts of “’Ey” wafting up Second Avenue in the afternoons from the soccer practice field.

It seems funny to me that this soccer coach who was hired to whip Longwood’s team into shape (and did so to a significant degree, if I recall correctly) and had a no-nonsense attitude about participation and team building in phys-ed class would start a ping-pong tournament. It was such a sideshow, geeky thing. The matches had to be held at lunchtime or after school, apart from normal phys-ed activities. The ping-pong table would be set up wherever it could be, in the lunchroom or school foyer, whichever was not being used at the time. There was never any ping-pong instruction during P.E.; whatever instruction we had needed to have been already gleaned by our own independent experience in life, which meant that some people were just screwed, and others were uncharacteristically lucky.

The tournament was for fifth, sixth, and seventh graders only. I was in sixth. I think I even was not sure that I wanted to enter the tournament. I was not competitive, I had never played Little League or any other sport, never even been to any of these games as a spectator to watch my classmates play. Some of them were home-run heros who had already perfected their Babe Ruth struts at the age of 11. They were arch-enemys when they faced each other on Friday nights from beneath the brims of their “Rotary,” “Jaycees,” “Moose”hats. They chewed Big League Chew and spat. You know, looking back, 6) I think that the biggest reason I never wanted to do Little League was that I didn’t want to sit on a bench with a bunch of sweaty boys who were spitting. I had never had to do this, and somehow, without ever experiencing it firsthand, I knew to avoid it.

All this athletic engagement was happening to other kids outside my realm of experience, often on Friday nights, when I would be at home watching The Incredible Hulk or whatever. So when I did finally enter my first athletic competition, I was very surprised at the low level of actual competition.

Mr. P was letting folks serve by bouncing the ball first, then tapping it over the net. I could top-spin these suckers back to their court and off to Venus. But I was fairly sensitive for a kid, and in my recollection, I didn’t abuse these opponents too badly.

There was this one serious dickhead “K” in my class who was also in the tournament. He would hit you when the teacher wasn’t looking, and at lunch he would take your yogurt from you. In earlier grades, like first through second grade, he had to wear a cast and brace on a leg that was healing from a nasty break. That took at least a year to heal, but like a dog adapting to loping on three legs, he learned to run with that one leg held rigid in its cast. He would lift it from the hip, heave it forward, slap it rattling to the ground, then sort of jump forward on his good leg. He was about as fast as anyone. He was also known to kick kids with that brace. By sixth grade he had been long healed from that, and he was excellent at all sports, so he was probably really good at ping-pong. I have no memory of playing against him though, so I expect he was beaten in some other bracket by someone else.

The person who beat him was probably severnth grader “T,” whom I played later in a semi-final match one Friday after school. By then the ping-pong tournament had become a big deal. Some players were becoming celebrities in their circles of friends, but I don’t recall much attention being paid to me around the time of that match. In general, 7) I was neither consistently an outsider or insider. For a period of a few days, I could be the object of the cool kids’ teasing; then, other times, I could be on the fringes of the “in” crowd, but then I usually kept my mouth shut, fearing that I would say something that would reveal my quirky outsider interests in sci-fi, books, fantasies.

This match was held in the lunch room after school on a Friday, and maybe 20 or so kids, teachers, a few parents were there to watch. They were mostly, I think, from “T’s” seventh grade class. Some of them even hung or sat in the colorful metal grillwork dividing the lunch room from the hallway bordering it. Normally teachers would immediately yell at anyone doing this, but in my recollection, nobody yelled that afternoon.

I don’t think I realized how good a player “T” was until we had gotten into the match a ways. He was damn good. He was the first opponent to deliberately place the ball certain places to confuse me, and to put spins on it. Early in the match I gave up trying to spin the balls back at him, because his spins combined with my spins were like mixing drugs and alcohol, and nothing good came of it. I ended up just trying to hold on, just return the damn ball, just keep it in play. That was all I could do. Man there were some long volleys too. And it never really occurred to me that I would lose. I mean, he was bigger than me, a seventh grader, probably a better ping-pong player when you get down to it; and he was someone I had heard the girls in my carpool from home to school, “K” and “E,” talking about in the hushed, awestruck tones they were learning about from reading Tiger Beat (remember, I was still watching Batman -- I was certainly not the subject of such conversation). But I had beaten the crap out of everyone that came before me and it just never occurred to me that I could walk away from a match having not won. It’s not that I had to muster all my will, or shut out distractions, or assume the Eye of the Tiger. It was just that I was sweating more, and my ass was against a wall, but that wall was blocking me from losing.

I recall actually running back from the table to catch up to balls going past me. Once I really did dive for a ball and roll on the tile floor, but I certainly lost that point. And in my memory, nobody on the sidelines was saying much -- not much cheering or clapping for either of us. It never occurred to me that they were mostly on “T’s” side, but I think they were. He probably really was expected to win.

My teacher from the previous year, Mrs. “B,” said to my Dad later that “T” just couldn’t get anything past me. I won, and everyone was pretty quiet about it, and our parents drove us home. I think maybe it was while going home that it first occurred to me that, “Jesus, that was a ball buster,” though I hardly had such descriptive language at my disposal at the time.

The final was to to be a few school days later, maybe middle of the next week. I was really uptight about it. The other finalist was “Th,” a fifth grader, a very short guy for his age who had an extremely sunny personality, whom everyone liked, who I don’t think was really teased much at all despite his shortness.

After “T”had been such a hard match, I figured it stood to reason that “Th” would be harder, so I made my Dad practice with me far more than he wanted to. He said, “Okay, but you’ll have to do the same for Sidletz.” 8) “Sidletz” (spelling?) was his word for the male child he presumed I would have someday. (Dad came from middle-income Cleveland, and whenever he needed a name for a generic person, someone I might call “Joe Six-Pack,” his name for such a person came out sounding German or Eastern European, like “Frankie Schnitzelhauser.”) I think that prerequisite to this presumption was another presumption, which was that I would date more as a young adult. Well, all I can say to Dad is, we learn to relate on emotional levels by following our parents’ example.

The final was to be held during the school day, with the fifth, sixth, and seventh grades taking their recess periods at the same time so they could all watch. The day started pretty normally, with us sixth graders coming in to our colorful room, hanging out among our desks before class was to start, taking our seats at the bell. The teacher was trying to start class when “J,” who tended to blut things out without forewarning, said, “Hey, today’s the championship!”

This had been the only thing on my mind that day. 9) Like so many things things that preoccupied me then and now, it was weighing heavily in my chest, and I had kept quiet about it. Bearing that emotional burden, I was suddenly also in the unusual position of having all eyes on me. And they were chanting my three letter, one syllable name like Eastern Bloc sports fans cheering a figure skater. The teacher motioned for them to stop, then quickly gave up and smiled and let it go on for maybe 30 seconds. And then our class finally calmed down, and in the relative quiet, we could hear the fifth graders through the wall chanting “Th’s” name.

The clowns in our class would not be outdone. “Let’s pick him up,” they said, and came at me, and I was sort of in shock, maybe a milder version of how I was 20 years later when 10) I was held up at gunpoint.

My chair was lifted with me in it. I knew this would be awkward, and an instant later, the mob realized this as well and separated me from the chair. I kind of wiggled to get away, and I was probably smiling by now. “W,” a huge guy who had been held back a grade, came up behind me and lifted me, and others joined him to carry me out into the hallway. Fifth graders heard the commotion, saw us, and went back to their room to carry “Th” as well. I was carried maybe only 50 feet or so down the hall, then set down, and we all went back to class and took our seats, flushed, as if coming back from recess.

“What would we do if [Elrond] were up against ‘K,’” one of the athletic boys said. He was referring to the dick who had once had the broken leg. “K” was slouched in his seat though, doing something in his lap, maybe playing one of those pocket video games. He looked up, looked back at the game. He had been out of the tournament for a while and had no interest in it.

I knew what they would have done if it were me against “K” in the finals. The louder, athletic kids would have favored him, and some quieter ones would have supported me. Our class would have been divided. Aware of this sectarian split, there would not have been much pre-game cheering for either of us, but the athletic boys would have slapped Hi-Fives with “K” behind the divider leading to the sink and coat closet area, and I might have come around the corner to find them leaning against the counter there. I would have stopped, sensing I was not welcome, and they would have pushed past me, punching my shoulder as they went by, not punching very hard, but enough to possibly 11) make me cry depending on my emotional makeup of the moment.

From the first volley, I found “Th” to be no match for me. I could not believe he had made it to the finals. As expression of my disbelief, I smashed a few of his lousy serves into the corners of his court, then restrained myself to winning the rest of the points without fanfare.

Afterwards, back in class, “E” the Tiger Beat reader, who happened to have a seat next to me, something I found rather thrilling even that year, was kind of cold toward me for a while. Then she said, “Gah, you didn’t have to kill him. You could have let him get a few points.”

I had some sinister reaction I could not voice, but now, in adulthood, I can. It is, “’K’ got to kick kids with his leg brace and take our yogurt from us. ‘J’ gets to disrupt class whenever he wants. Other ‘J’ gets to come into the room on Monday morning and hold his hands in the air, making peace signs, because of his home runs he hit the previous Friday. ‘T’ gets the girls talking about him in hushed tones. But I don’t get to kick someone’s ass in ping-pong? Well tough shit. I kicked it. But don’t worry. I’m sure I’ll go back to being mostly inconsequential now. I won’t be any more trouble to your sense of justice."

Continue . . .

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Dude, Grow Your Own

This Fourth of July, Elrond Hubbard celebrates the proud Americans who look at the sorry state of everything and say, “Fuck it. We’ll grow it ourselves.”

‘Cause let’s face it, folks. The world is going to Hell faster than you can say Larsen B Ice Shelf; to shit faster than you can say National Pork Producers Council.

Elrond Hubbard knows he does his part, driving an SUV. And he knows he consumes a buttload of gas in it, what with all his driving to Raleigh to pick up gear, taking it to Sanford or Rolesville or Chocowinity to shoot a video, and taking it back to Raleigh. And while he’s on the road, he consumes an assload of fast food.

He sits in left-turn lanes in Cary wondering where it all ends. Everyone takes twice as long to get to work now because they have to stop in at Starbucks. This means more people turning left, more assholes gunning back out into traffic, more cars idling in drive-throughs, more windshields out there at once reflecting glare into each other like infinity mirrors facing across the intersections.

Elrond Hubbard looks into that heat at 8:00 AM, when it’s already 90 degrees and hazy, and he thinks that all we are doing in the Middle East is stirring the stew. Call him un-patriotic. Call him un-supportive of our troops. Tell him he doesn’t deserve to watch fireworks on Independence Day because he does not honor the war to which they allude. Though we are continually told we are bringing fundamental change to the region, Elrond Hubbard finds himself agreeing with Fred Kaplan’s warning on Slate that, for all the times Bush repeats it, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to say.”

George Will sees virtually no realistic alternatives to paying high prices for oil from the Middle East. If we really look like we’re getting in to alternative fuels, he says, the Saudis will just lower oil prices to make potential investing in alternative fuels look less appealing. Anyway, where in our lifestyle are the worst impacts to the environment accrued? Perhaps not so much with carbon dioxide from conventional cars, but in the nitrous oxide and methane, as well as carbon dioxide, emitted in the production and delivery of a hamburger; or the stripping of land by the mining of zinc to make batteries for hybrids, he says.

Elrond Hubbard looks into the smog of hopelessness and thinks that the road to true change is paved not by hardliners with their cries for more war, or by those resigned to the status quo, but industrious folks who don’t waste time preaching about how people ought to live and instead look at what we need and say, “Fuck it. Let's just grow it.”

Friend and utilitarian "G" once lived with Elrond Hubbard. Now he runs a non-profit company New Harvest which plans to someday grow meat as tissue culture, relieving the world and its animals of much of the burden and suffering of factory farming.

Cultured meat isn't natural, but neither is yogurt," says [“G” in an interview with Wired.] And neither, for that matter, is most of the meat we eat. Cramming 10,000 chickens in a metal shed and dosing them full of antibiotics isn't natural. I view cultured meat like hydroponic vegetables. The end product is the same, but the process used to make it is different. Consumers accept hydroponic vegetables. Would they accept hydroponic meat?

Meanwhile, PetroSun Inc. has been growing crude oil from carbon dioxide taken out of the atmosphere, in an industrial algae farm of a sort which does not need to be located on cropland, in Opelika, Alabama, which is not in the Middle East. In August of 2007, the company will hold a three-day demonstration of their facility for invited guests who will need to sign non-disclosure agreements. Guests will be presented with samples of this home-grown crude oil which they can test in their own facilities. PetroSun should invite George Will. The company expects to begin selling crude oil to the biofuel industry in the first quarter of 2008. What could be more patriotic than that?

Continue . . .