Monday, June 21, 2010

Runneth over by The Cup

Yes, World Cup tournament, I understand. Thank you for the reminder. Let me get this straight: I’m to take off from work. I’m allowed to eat, so long as I do so in front of a TV showing whichever of the games the media tell me matters most at that moment. Probably a flat-screen set, too, with a the latest flavor of Dolby Digital so I can hear those infernal vuvuzelas from 360 degrees as well as at 360 decibels. I get it—all this goes with the package. And sleep? I guess I’m out of luck. South Africa is six hours away from EST, which means that if I must work, it’ll be at night rather than during the day. If I want to sleep, I have to do it in, oh, mid-July.

That’s what the Fédération Internationale de Football Association seems to want. It’s what the media seem only too happy to relay, panting, to their audience. It’s easier than reporting.

The way I see it, though, the soccer gods should consider themselves lucky at least that I know, as of this past weekend, what FIFA stands for. Insist I watch a soccer game and, for all I know, I could end up like that fellow whose family decided he wasn’t going to watch the World Cup on TV—or, for that matter, anything else. Ever again.

Not that I’ve never paid attention to the World Cup. On July 11, 1982, Elena and I were walking in Manhattan, celebrating in the vicinity of speeding cars full of loud, cheering Italians. Italy, after all, had just won that year’s World Cup. Of course, we and the fans weren’t rejoicing over the same news. Soccer? What was soccer? I’d just proposed to Elena, and she’d said yes.

I can’t blame FIFA for all the breathless excitement. Its public-relations reps, like those of any organization, do what they’re paid to do: peddle the product to the most people possible, if not with as much alliteration as possible. And it isn’t merely the World Cup. How often do the media tell us what we ought to watch, read, listen to, even believe? We’re supposed to be gaga for Lady Gaga, the way we were supposed to worship Madonna. The 6 p.m. news, moreover, is never going to lead with a real story when someone unexpected just got voted off American Idol.

Even as a kid, I was bothered by how a rock band I’d never even heard of (we called bands “groups” then) would come out with a live album that my brother Stephen would bring home. At the beginning of the album, I’d hear the band announced, followed by throngs of people cheering for them or the album’s opening song. This sort of thing always unsettled me, since the band and song were new to me. How could they cheer so loudly for a band and song they didn’t yet know were any good? I’d later learn that not only was this not the band’s first album, but that several had come out before this one. I was eight years old and already uncool.

A few years older now, I’ve come to realize I’m destined to know only some of all that the world has to offer. I just would like to partake of it with my own little spoon—without some reporter shoving it down my throat.

Excuse me now, I have to vote a few hundred more times for the ballplayers I want in the All-Star Game.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Hey, I heard that

You know who you are. Actually, you probably don’t—though it’s time you knew. If you’re like most people, you don’t even notice when fluorescent lights buzz or floors creak. Or when someone close by is tapping, tapping, tapping.

But if you’re like me, you notice everything.

It isn’t a matter of exceptional hearing. Plenty of people besides me ace their hearing tests, even a select few who attended more concerts as teenagers. Yet I don’t miss much. Cars that pull up in the driveway. Conversations in other rooms of the house. The difference between the low and medium fan settings on the kids’ air conditioners. Upstairs. When I’m downstairs.

Mostly, though, it’s that that my antenna is always up. If I’m having a conversation or deeply engrossed in something I’m writing, little that’s going on around me will jar my concentration. (The political yappers in the office hallway are the exception.) But trust me: Those other little sounds have not escaped my notice. I suspect I’m the product of having grown up in a family of eight. Any time we were home at the apartment, chances were that someone, in some room, was talking about me.

Is it a problem? You tell me. I wake up each morning still peeved at whichever bird outside was discourteous this time. (I don’t happen to believe that a bird whose call is Jeter-Jeter-Jeter, for instance, should wake up a Met fan.) If I park to get coffee on the way to work, I’ll notice every SUV that simply must bark to tell its owner that the keyless-entry remote works. Should your watch’s alarm go off—tattling on you for never learning the settings—believe me, it registered. And don’t get me started about Velcro.

I’ve known for some time that I lack the ability to tune out ambient sounds. At one school I attended in the Coast Guard, I wished I could change my morning schedule so that I wouldn’t be shaving at the same time as one fellow student. He’d run his razor down one swath of his face, then strike the razor against the edge of the sink to knock off the excess: Tap-tap. Another swath: Tap-tap. And so on for seemingly ten minutes, which I found odd since his beard didn’t leave much surface to shave. Never a tap. Never a tap-tap-tap. Either of these would have broken his unintentional yet accursed pattern. I considered deserting.

And these days, I drive to work with special memories about the years I spent riding the Metro-North commuter train into Grand Central. Yep, there’s something about riding a train, that certain rhythm of the wheels as the air beneath the cars stumbles over the rail ties with a gentle woppata woppata that can lull me to sleep. And would have, too, if not for my fellow passengers. It wasn’t merely the cellphone talkers, however much I’d wished them into a special prattle car. It also wasn’t just the loud headphones, or the man who once napped beside me and hummed a long note each and every time he exhaled. My special beef was with those who habitually came onto the train with a newspaper and proceeded to tear it to shreds. One article after another: a little reading, then a lot of ripping that, somewhere inside my brain, was breaking apart lobes. If this happened today, I’d be writing Santa. Not for noise-canceling headphones but, rather, a few online Times subscriptions—for them. Smart phones and laptops are a lot harder to rip.

Fortunately, what often seems a curse can become a blessing. My wife, Elena, often tells the story from once, in Ogunquit, Maine, that we were walking through an open parking area at Perkins Cove, on the way to some shops. Without warning, I suddenly gave her a good, hard shove. What added to her shock was that she was seven months’ pregnant. But before she could respond, the car that had been approaching us from behind, its driver passing out from a stroke, rolled by. An instant later the passenger, the driver’s wife, got her foot on the brake. Elena hadn’t heard it coming.

So I’ll take it. If anything, I’m first in line at the ice-cream truck.