That Damn Ocean: Part 1 in an Agonizingly Long Series Detailing My Struggle to Stop Worrying And Learn to Love How I Got Here
October 23rd, 2013
“Stockholm, let me go home …”
- Jason Isbell
I’m writing this entry from the food court of a haute Galleria in the Östermalm district of Stockholm. As Yogi would say “it gets late early” in Swedish wintertime. Four in the afternoon and it’s pitch black outside but the indoor market around me stirs; the market’s incubatory lights nurture muted conversations of pockets of Swedish pensioners enjoying their late afternoon nips nestled amidst plasticine, canyonic aisles mortared of herring and cheeses.
I’m waiting to meet a gentleman for an interview for a position in the University’s Film Studies Department. I am waiting on the Department Chair. We’ve never met though the two of us have corresponded several times over the previous three months.
I’m surprised I’m here today at all – during our correspondence the Professor more than once referred to my candidacy for the position as unique (a polite, Swedish way of saying ‘flimsy’).
Turns out it was his students’ encouragement that led to my consideration.
See, in a past life, I was a film critic of very miniscule renown. It was a nice little Public Radio show with a surprisingly successful podcast edition that found a large international audience. We were big in Sweden.
The Professor’s students knew of my show and, at their urging, he listened to our back catalog of reviews. He must have appreciated them because he was eager to respond with his own analyses: long emails comprised of some of the most didactic, informed film criticism I had ever read, often genius-level takes that indicted my own ignorance on the subject. Two years removed from the game, I tried to fake it as best I could in my responses. (Who was Béla Tarr again? He directed Grease, right?) I must have fooled him just enough because when I said I would be in Sweden, he asked for a sit-down.
I like the idea of film school and I really like the idea of Swedish film school.
So it’s going to be all that much harder to tell the professor I’m rescinding my candidacy.
Sincere Happy Holiday Wishes to you one and all from Team Mattysballgame!
Please check back in the New Year as the site is re-launching with movie reviews, less than pertinent thoughts and whatever the hell is on my mind.
There were lots of Strikes and Gutters in 2013 for the Ballgame Household, some of the happenings:
- Bought the ring … two months later sold the ring.
- Worked as much and as hard as I have in ten years – will probably have to start voting Republican.
- Traveled to twelve states, three continents, and five countries.
- Found myself filling out an on-line Swedish Dating Site profile.
- Gave walking directions to Caroline Kennedy.
- And as always, the paternity suits continued to be inconclusive.
Random Movie Pick
The Way, Way Back (available on DVD);
Chekhov meets Apatow (and to my knowledge neither were involved in filming). In a year with a dearth of acceptable comedies Way Back is a quiet ensemble-based gem, a stand-out cast knowing their roles, never straining to punch the joke.
I knew it was going to be okay when I thought I saw Sam Rockwell wink directly at me in the early stages of the film, almost reassuring me, “I got this. Don’t worry.” Allison Janney (Kenyon College) will win an Oscar in the next five years.
(Dirs. Nat Faxon, Jim Rash) (Star. Toni Collette, Steve Carrell, Sam Rockwell, Allison Janney) (Screenplay Nat Faxon, Jim Rash) (Cinematography John Bailey)
Verdict: Queue It!
Similar: Kings of Summer (2013)
To close, here are a couple of videos in honor of the two best things to happen to me all year.
1) For Ingrid from the Brussels airport (sigh, I will gladly let you keep my phone charger) ….
2) And for my new nephew Magnus Karl (may your first words be “I’ll take two Racing Forms and my Uncle would like to know if the burrito is included during Happy Hour”) …
Mother would like me to add a disclaimer to every blog post. These reflections ARE fictionalized. In fact, the entry you are about to read is actually complete fiction.
In This Corner …
Last weekend I managed to shorten the Bucket List I created when I was nine-years-old by one.
The scratch registered only #12 on the list: well behind my number #1: “touch a boob*” but it was still a biggie.
I was given the once unthinkable opportunity to arm-wrestle my childhood hero: a professional wrestler now reduced to autographing appearances in shopping mall food-courts. It cost me a measly twelve dollars to stand in line for the chance. I would have paid fifty.
I stood in line alongside 30-odd kids at best (pun completely intended) in the middle of a subfuse shopping center in one of Chicago’s nondescript outer suburbs. The queue ran from the east end of the lower-level Sbarro to the far edge of J.C. Penny.
Despite the fact most of my fellow attendees looked no more than age 14, I silently mocked them, ruthlessly, undeservedly for their ignorance. It wasn’t their fault, I know. They were simply too young, too young to appreciate the privilege awaiting them at the end of an unassuming dais, dais perched on risers borrowed from the “Dotty Mac and Farm Friends” stage plopped strategically next to Baby Gap.
No, to these kids my hero was just another of the handful of hulking, balding men, wrestling days long behind them, sitting in a row of folding chairs (yes, for those in the know, apropos) underneath a drooping yellow banner that announced “Legends of the Ring.”
These kids never had the honor of witnessing the breath-taking exploits of these Masters of the Universe in their prime when they plied their trade in front of thousands; in arenas packed to the rafters; to millions glued to their televisions at home, hanging on their every move, gasping at the effortless grandeur of their ballet of death.
These were proud men, now shells of the magnificent Titan-defying Gods they once were.
And they once were Gods. Vengeful Gods. Old Testament style.
And my hero stood head and shoulders above them all. He was the golden calf a young “Matthew” venerated every Saturday morning.
The routine went unbroken for years: promptly at 11:00 A.M. after Smurfs I turned to channel 9 to watch the greatest hour-long program television has ever known: “Wide World of Wrestling’s Weekly Weekend Showcase.”
I cleared our downstairs coffee table in front of the television to the side of the room. I called for my best friend and wrestling manager Slapshot, our wire-haired dachshund; he took his post and sat attentively in the corner of the “ring” (adequately played by our downstairs rug).
My Spiderman pajamas were quickly cast aside and I squeezed into my custom-fitted Zubaz. I slipped on my dad’s tuxedo bow-tie and began circling the rug like a Chippendale’s dancer mid-strip.
With one eye locked on the TV, I began to imitate my hero’s unmistakable cocksure strut. Just like him, I stared down imaginary opponents (an unlucky combination of GI Joe’s, those homely Cabbage Patch Dolls stolen from my sister’s closet — sometimes even my sister) all unknowing lambs brought to the slaughter.
Suddenly my theme music would begin to play: sometimes Hammer, sometimes Wilson Phillips, most often Nelson. Then I yelled in time with the television’s “Ding, Ding, Ding” announcing the start of the first match.
I rushed forward onto the carpet, scraping bloody knees across the floor, dodging an open palm slap, delivering quick kicks to the chest, maybe a forearm to the midsection. Commentator Jessie “The Body” Ventura roared with approval as I climbed outside of the ring to smash my opponents over the back with the ubiquitous folding chair! (In reality there was no folding chair, this particular move was mimed, commissioner’s orders).
Then, just as my opponent began to retaliate and possibly gain the upper-hand, Team Robinson’s strategy began to fall into place:
Slapper’s job was to berate an incompetent referee (poor Paddington Bear) in order to distract him long enough so I could sinisterly introduce a “foreign object” into the match – usually a pink Sharpie-branded eraser that I used to wound my opponent.
Perhaps I landed a sharp jab to my opponent’s eyes or maybe a crowbar across the knee (crowbar = mimed). Finally, the unknowing referee would turn to see me draped over my dazed opponent and pound the mat three times with his palm.
It was the slap of victory.
I didn’t need to cheat every time … but I did win every match. Each contest was won in grand style: Big John Stud was no match for my flying elbow off “the ropes” (the armrests of my parent’s late 60’s putrid-orange corduroy couch). Rowdy Roddy was no match for my violent close-lines across the chest.
And no less than the Great Hulk Hogan himself could possibly escape my hero’s patented move – replicated to near perfection – the devastating, debilitating “Sleeper Hold.” I would laugh diabolically as I dragged my prey to the middle of the ring, sling my arm around his neck and squeeze my biceps until I fully restricted the flow of blood to my hapless victim’s brain. The poor man would flail helplessly until he fell unconscious to the floor.
It was a move so perilous my sister once chipped a tooth … which lead to a suspension from the ring on orders of the commissioner including a denial of access to my “Star Wars Guys” for a good month.
As you can tell, my hero was a villain, a “heel” in the parlance of the ring. His was a character created solely to be despised, created solely to draw the ire of millions.
And I loved him for it.
I’ve always loved the Iago much more than any hero.
The villain is so much harder to play, so much more rewarding, so much more fun.
And here was my hero now, once an esteemed, laureled gladiator sitting in the gosh-darned (I’ve been told to watch my language on this blog … yes, by order of the commissioner) platitudinous confines of something called the Gurnee Hills Mall, a Suburban morass of Honda Odesseys, Land’s End strollers, a darn Chili’s in the darn parking lot.
Such magnificent an actor, showman, athlete, should never be reduced to such a fate. Here was a champion slumming it with mere mortals. One should never be drummed out of Valhalla to the sounds of muzaked Hall & Oates.
As the line drew closer to his table, I rehearsed what I would say:
Do I tell him about the BETA cassette tape my dad recorded for me as a child? The tape of his biggest match, a tape I watched over and over, watched so many times until the on-screen action became indecipherable.
Do I dare admit the genuine anguish I felt as my hero’s “tag-team” lost their title under the spotlights of the grandest stage of them all, none other than Madison Square Garden itself? About the agony I felt at the match’s end when the announcer, the legendary Gorilla Monsoon, exclaimed in a far too enthusiastic tone, “It’s over! It’s over!”?
Do I tell him that the only shred of relief I clung to watching that worn tape was the fact that my hero wasn’t the man pinned to the canvass, the one given the three-count? Or about the life-long animosity I held for his partner who allowed himself to walk into a flying body slam and a (far too quick) three-count resulting in the loss of their Tag Team Championship Title and its accompanying glorious, nay, PULCHRITUDINOUS gold-plated belts.
Oh, the helplessness I felt as my hero’s title was forfeited to a pair of non-descript, milquetoast “Good Guys”; Generic Good Guys outfitted in red, white and blue tights (really?), a duo of baby-faced newcomers the Wrestling League was eager to promote.
No, I didn’t need to tell him. He’d heard it all before. He already knew.
Finally I reached my hero’s makeshift desk. I was a nervous wreck.
I can stand in the wings of a theater about to perform a 20 minute monologue in iambic verse and not require the aid of more than two Clonopins and vodka sodas.
I was achieving a goal that seemed so impossible far too many years ago and now seemed far too easily within reach.
I was about to shake hands with a man, whom, along with my father and “King of the Hill’s” Hank Hill, completed the Trinity of men whose respect I value most. I learned knees do in fact jelly.
But truthfully in that initial moment, I wasn’t there, standing ten feet from the combination KFC/Taco Bell. Of course not, I was perched on the ropes of a stained couch, I circled a worn knock-off Persian rug, my pal Slapper, gone for more than 17 now sat right there in my corner …
Standing there, I marveled at my hero, marveled at how much larger he appeared in person, unconstrained by the limits of our 18″ inch Zenith television. Sitting there, dwarfing the table, his presence as commanding and larger-than-life as ever.
Sure, he no longer sported his signature jet black mullet; his muscles didn’t threaten to bust out of his shirt; he was actually wearing a shirt. But little else had changed. He still wore that devious smirk, the same smirk he wore when he raised his arm to the spotlights hanging above the ring, gleefully inviting a cacophony of boos to rain down on him. The crowd booed futilely because they knew what was coming next, they knew all too well their precious “Good Guy” was done for.
No one escaped The Sleeper.
Now my hero’s smirk gave way to a smile. Sizing me up, he quickly realized he had a true fan on his hands.
He knew his demographic. He knew I wasn’t one of these young punks in love with what passes for today’s wrestling: a glorified pyrotechnic light show offering plotlines callouslly crossing every racial and mysonygnistic line. A multimillion enterprise of excess, a depraved product built on graphic violence, the worst of the worst of what passes for modern bread and circuses.
Maybe I’m guilty of looking back through a scrim of rose-colored nostalgia. But the artform I knew, the one that played after Smurfs, offered a whimsical, self-depracating, considerately configured theatricality complete with a knock-off cartoon show. It wasn’t Chaucer, but it was a heckuva young adult beach read.
My hero could identify the kids that grew up with his action figure. Our hairlines and Violent Femmes t-shirts gave us away.
He asked politely what I was up to, what I did for a living.
His voice hadn’t changed either. He spoke with that same guttural mix of spit and sweat-stained acrimony.
And, well, he seemed genuinely interested.
I told him far too gleefully (oh God Matty, gameface, gameface) that I was a film critic on the radio.
(Seriously Matty? On the radio? It just sounded awkward. “On the radio guy” would eat at Chili’s.)
Surprisingly he didn’t follow up with one of the typical responses I get when I’m forced to admit my profession. He didn’t ask what films he should see. He didn’t list his personal favorites.
Instead he asked “Where did you go to study that?”
I was a little taken aback; I reached frantically for an answer, I went to school, right?
(Technically not true, I studied theater, but, heat of the moment, best not to pick nits.)
He nodded. “Good school.”
At that moment I was arrogant enough to hope MY HERO felt some small notion of pride that he once provided hours of entertainment for a future Ivy League graduate student and a microscopically celebrated film critic.
It passed quickly. I mean, of course he didn’t. I was small fry. Like his peers and the other greats before him, Verne Gagne, Paul “Mr. Wonderful” Orndorff, George “The Animal Steele,” my hero had brought joy to so many different walks of life: future Heisman Trophy Winners, Supreme Court Justices, bankers, bus drivers. I was merely a small soldier in a phalanx of believers.
My hero reached down, grabbed my blank white index card and wrote, “Harvard sucks.”
I told you! All-Knowing!
He reached out with his fist and prepared to grapple with the pixie sticks that pass for my forearms. (Don’t worry ladies. I’ve since started a regimen of Hot Yoga).
I’d been watching the shtick he had been performing for the younger kids in line ahead of me. The routine followed pretty much along the same lines every time: he would wrap his massive palms around the youngster’s wrist, grapple with them valiantly for a good ten seconds before the kid somehow managed to summon superhuman strength and began to turn the tide.
Ever the showman, shaking from head to toe in amazement at his impending fate, he unthinkably let his wrist begin to fall and land with a dull thud on the blue dish towel serving as a mat.
Every now and then he would reach out and try to perform a half-a**ed sleeper disqualifying himself from the match. After each loss, he would dejectedly lay his head down on the card table or complain loudly and wave his arms at his handler standing beside him, complaining that the kid had cheated.
For those in line of driving age, he would sometimes pretend to compete a little more outright, and, against those with suitable physiques actually looking for a match, at times, he would let himself win.
But I couldn’t do it.
I said I had to get going. That he would crush me and that I could never live it down to my girlfriend. (Ahem, non-existent, ladies).
He laughed, shook my hand and wished me well.
I did the same.
I walked away with a smile I hadn’t worn in years.
See, I couldn’t risk a victory, no matter how unearned.
A win would have been a disservice to all those Saturday mornings, to the army of Transformers that honorably lost their limbs in combat, but, most of all, I could never betray my wily old manager Slapper, my partner in crime for twelve unforgettable years …
Truth was I could never bring myself to be the good guy.
*Joke unabashedly stolen from Drew Carey. Yes, he was funny once.
“Do you know where I can find smoked bacon?” I asked the attractive woman wearing a Dartmouth sweatshirt, large black cat-eyed glasses and blue, striped Converse shoes.
We were both in the ethnic food aisle of my local grocery, Strack and Van Til. I interrupted Dartmouth as she reached for a jar of pepperoncini peppers.
Aside: I LOVE pepperoncini peppers. I also love that pepperoncini must be so ubiquitous that my Spell Checker didn’t even offer to correct its spelling just now.
It was an honest question. I didn’t know where to find smoked bacon, a fact that would probably surprise the Strack’s cashiers and stockpeople. They see me there most every Wednesday, strolling the aisles, red plastic basket filled with sundries: I probably should have developed a working familiarity with the bacon section.
What the staff doesn’t realize, however, is that I rarely buy anything. At the end of my visit, all of my groceries find themselves neatly tucked back into their original positions on their respective shelves.
They served their purpose. Merely props, all.
I’m there to meet women.
I firmly believe that the grocery store is a far healthier dating environment than any bar because the women in the grocery are on average far more approachable, generally more intelligent and further along in their careers.
And, as for you, the dating odds in the aisles of the grocery are much greater in your favor than on a stool at some club. The fact you’re even in the store buying your own food, especially Triscuits, Special K, cauliflower, Tony Canchere’s Cajun Seasoning, collard greens, corn, tomato juice, pepper jack cheese, pasta, cornbread stuffing and tuna, perhaps a Yoga mat for subtle garnish, speaks volumes for your character without you having to say much of anything.
Really, I don’t get why men are so intimidated by women. Maybe it’s a lack of confidence, a confidence perhaps you don’t build until you find yourself in your early thirties. Once you hit thirty you come to realize that women at that point have defined for themselves the qualities they’re looking for in a man – qualities that usually have nothing to do with looks (or, at the least, very little).
You come to realize that a little confidence, intelligence, and sense of humor go a long way and that any Football Brad is eight years removed from the equation.
So when you’re in the grocery (or Super Target – my Thursday night haunt) and you see a woman you think compatible, steel yourself as best you need to, walk up to her and compliment her on her shoes, hair, sweatshirt, whatever. It’s not disingenuous. You’re thinking it, just say it.
I once told a woman sitting at a bar in New York that I knew she was probably waiting for someone but that she looked fantastic in her dress. The next night, she was there again. Only this time she wasn’t waiting for anybody.
So, after approaching a woman in the grocery, the initial compliment, I ask for directions to a certain food item and if we happen to meet in another aisle, ice broken, it’s easy to further the conversation.
“What are [insert weirdly named food here] anyway?”
Yeah, it’s goofy, it’s Seinfeld, but it works.
If it seems like there’s chemistry, ask her if she’s ever been to BLANK neighborhood restaurant — you already have an idea what she likes to eat.
Perfect example: pepperoncini, as in “Have you ever been to BLANK? Their Bloody Mary bar has pepperoncini.”
Who knows? You just might get to enjoy a brunch over a Bloody Mary bar, learn her name is Michele, learn that she’s a 2004 Dartmouth grad with a degree in Sociology, that she’s originally from Racine, Wisconsin; perhaps you’ll have a good time over four fun dates, but maybe IT won’t quite be there and you’ll both end it on an amicable note.
It’s not a science. Like spiders, women are just as scared of you as you are of them.
Dating secrets aside, why did I really need to know where the smoked bacon lived?
I was charged with preparing the soup course for our third annual Orphan’s Thanksgiving Day Feast, a celebration for the handful of us living in Chicago spending the Holiday apart from our families — unintentionally or otherwise.
I haven’t been home for Thanksgiving in eleven years. Consequently every Thanksgiving I’ve celebrated over the last decade has taken on its own memorable color.
There was the blizzard of 2005, a Thanksgiving spent with my dear friend Emily in New York; our friends were unable to make the trip down from New Hampshire. Left with a six pound turkey and full bar to ourselves, we were drunk and fat by three in the afternoon and more than willing to invite Emily’s cousin’s bartender boyfriend’s co-workers over for a nightcap. When I’ll find myself ending the night talking Proust with a beautiful transgendered Asian again is in God’s hands.
There was the Thanksgiving spent in Moscow, in a theater devoid of heat, working with a Stage Fighting Instructor who barked his instructions entirely in Russian, furthering his points with giant smacks across the chest. Later that night we dined on liver and beets in a dimly lit bar owned by our gangster patron.
There was the Thanksgiving spent in Providence, Rhode Island, another blizzard. My friend Erin and I navigated six foot high snowdrifts, dragging ourselves to the Tortilla Flat restaurant. We ate Tex Mex and drank Narragansett beers with the locals until Erin ended up in the lap of a man who claimed to have met Papa Hemingway – never mind that the man looked to be in his late 30’s; never mind that Hemingway died in 1961.
Since moving back to Chicago, I have fallen into a bit of a routine. The Wednesday before Thanksgiving I spend the afternoon at the Jackson and Wells Billy Goat Tavern. The showing of Planes, Trains and Automobiles begins at 2:00 pm. Union construction workers, city employees, traders from the nearby stock exchange all file in to watch the film before catching their commuter trains home to the suburbs at nearby Union Station.
The motley assembly quote every scene along with the film over draft Miller Lites and Billy Goat lagers. They laugh uproariously at the genius of Steve Martin and the late, great John Candy; most of the regulars having sat on their reserved stools and enjoyed the same routine for the past fifteen years.
The next morning, Thanksgiving Day, I make my way down to Chicago’s Macy’s Day State Street parade. After watching the giant inflatable Elmo’s, Big Bird’s, Underdog’s limbo under the Lake Street elevated train, I head home and lock myself in the kitchen.
Each of us attending the Orphan Thanksgiving is tasked with providing a dish for the smorgasbord. This year I drew soup.
I settled on a recipe I had stumbled across in the pages of New York Magazine: an Oyster, Bacon and Beer chowder; done and done – Take those ingredients and throw in an un-chaperoned night with Bernadette Peters and you could rev up the crematorium, I’d slide in one happy clam.
Needless to say, it was game on.
I don’t know why I receive New York Magazine. I never subscribed to it. Methinks my stay at the Waldorf Astoria one long ago weekend might have encouraged the magazine’s publishers to send them to me unsolicited, obviously mistaking me for money. Every other month I receive a note and a bill asking me to “extend” my subscription. Obviously I don’t respond as I’ve never paid for a single page. And yet they keep coming.
I’m not one to critique business models (I write a blog for God’s sake) but is the magazine industry really pushed to the point of irrelevance that they’re resorting to tricking people into buying their rag?
Okay, let’s cook.
Now, if you’re looking to play along, know this: when I cook, I cook like I mean it. My chosen recipes ain’t cheap nor time sensitive.
Rachel Ray ain’t walking through that door.
Ground rules established, on to the play-by-play.
I started by dropping four pounds of washed and de-bearded mussels into a large pot where I showered them with two bottles of New Belgium’s Ranger IPA beer – though any Midwest IPA would do.
I let the mussels stew in the beer until they opened. Then I let them sit in the pot for a good additional seven minutes. You don’t want the soup to be over-powered by the taste of mussel, but you’ll see that the end product is rich with at least four or five distinct flavors and the mussel beer broth adds a really nice complement to nearly every one, so letting the little guys soak for an extra minute won’ t do any harm.
I removed the cooked mussels with a colander ladle and dropped them onto a waiting platter. I saved the broth in the pot and set it aside for later, but I didn’t need to hold onto the mussels, so I chowed down on a solid twelve of them.
Now, beware eating the unopened mussel. The little guy was more than likely dead before you dropped him in the pot, so he’s probably spoiled. Hell, beware Chicago mussels in general; odds are they were probably collected from a rusted Lake Michigan intake valve.
Mussels consumed, I turned to Beetle Baileying three pounds of Jolly Green Giant golden potatoes. (The work progressed a lot faster after I removed the clear tape covering the edge of the new peeler).
Once the potatoes were peeled, I began dicing onions, celery and smoked bacon until I reached 2 ½ cups of each. After a solid half hour of dicing with no real end in sight, I could have killed for that late-night d**che pitchman Vince to walk in with one of those damn chopslappers.
I chopped those f**king onions for so long, I began reciting Clarence’s nightmare monologue from Richard the III trying to take advantage of the Niagara of tears dripping onto my “Chef Matt” apron that I received at a team building retreat six years ago when I worked at American Express. I had to make an upside down cake with hair-lipped Vipul from accounting.
Once chopped, I arranged the ingredients in my set of clear, nesting Emeril Lagasse bowls that I trot out about twice a year: I parse the ingredients into their separate bowls for no other reason than to admire my handiwork. Plus it’s always nice to get a “look at you!” from the roomie and his girlfriend when they wander into the kitchen to appropriate a couple of your Ranger IPAs.
Next, I shellacked a large pan over medium heat with 6 tbs. of butter (who am I’m kidding, I’m Swedish, ain’t never met a recipe you in which you couldn’t double the butter) and dropped in the bacon. I cooked it for about five minutes until it began to caramelize (that’s the recipe’s verb, I don’t know caramelize, I just cooked it for five minutes). Stirring occasionally, I added the celery and onions and cooked them until the vegetables softened just a tad. Don’t overcook the veggies, though the edges of the bacon can be allowed to brown a bit. Then throw in the mussel/beer broth and set the pan aside.
While the veggies simmered, I took to cutting my potatoes into approximated one inch chunks. Don’t stand on exactitude when slicing the potatoes. If you’ve ever had New England style clam chowder you know what general look you’re going for.
I mixed the potatoes with 2 ½ cups cream, 1 ½ cups milk, and three peeled garlic cloves in a another large pan. The recipe calls for the pan to simmer for 20 minutes but my stovetop’s heat is lacking so I needed to keep them over the flame for a solid 30 minutes until the potatoes softened.
Then I removed half the potatoes with a slotted spoon and dropped them into the blender. The recipe calls for an immersion blender. I’m assuming that’s what I had. All I know is that the blender had a puree button and I pressed it repeatedly until the potatoes liquefied.
Then I threw in the pureed potatoes, the remaining cream and milk potatoes still sitting in the pan into my beer/mussel/celery/onion/bacon broth. I stirred it for a good five minutes over low heat.
Then I tossed in 16 shucked oysters. I’m a great shucker. My children will be great shuckers. Seriously, I once spent a whole summer shucking oysters at a Bayside Beach Bar in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. Frank Black of the Pixies tipped me $30 bucks. All things considered it’s been a nice life thus far.
Now, I love oysters. I once devoured two buckets of Apalachicola oysters in under a half hour at a seafood shack on Florida’s Redneck Rivera. I’m not entirely proud of the feat, well, hell, yes I am. I won a hat.
The recipe actually calls for Wellfleet oysters. Okay, I consider Wellfleet oysters to be the greatest oyster on the planet, truly the caviar of the sea. Bar none. Gun to my head: Theeeee Best. And I don’t really feel comfortable wasting Wellfleet oysters in some soup, no matter how good the soup. The recipe also suggests Blue Point oysters, but again, that’s some solid oyster, and I’m reluctant to drop them into a stew in which their nonpareil taste could be compromised.
So I bought whatever oysters the Strack offered up that day and slid them into the cauldron, making sure to add their juice as well. The off-brand oysters proved completely sufficient. I dusted the top of the soup with some chives, pepper, and a healthy dose of salt. Voila. Soup.
I served it right then and it proved bang-on fantastic, but if you have a half day or even a day, throw it into the fridge without the oysters and let everything mix. I’m of the opinion soup tastes better the next day. Just hold off on adding the oysters until you’re almost ready to serve.
So, go ahead, serve your soup, enjoy your last IPA and the compliments that will surely flow your way.
Who knows, you just might impress a University-of-Illinois-Chicago Film Professor and end up enjoying another, more private, showing of Planes and Trains later that night.
“Did you shuck these oysters yourself? Where did you get the shucker?”
“Aisle six, next to the pie plates.”
Here’s The Part of My Blog Wherein I Attempt to Exorcise Another Lost Weekend of a Relationship: Part II
Mother would like me to add a disclaimer to every blog post. These reflections ARE fictionalized. In fact, the entry you are about to read is actually complete fiction – a collection of Blog Matty Ballgame’s insecurities and failings with women put in parable form. Mother also instructed me to warn you that the material runs a tad blue and that there are Swears.
I would also like to add that the fictional Blog Matty Ballgame in the post below at times behaves in a manner of which he is not proud.
If you’re unfamiliar with the story of the fledgling relationship I was building with Melissa, a gorgeous spit-fire with whom I found myself in a passionate, shotgun relationship one long ago October, I strongly suggest you follow this link http://mattysballgame.com/2011/09/05/heres-the-part-of-my-blog-wherein-i-cathartically-attempt-to-exorcise-yet-another-extended-lost-weekend-of-a-relationship-part-1/ and read Part I of the saga.
The following Wednesday I sat on a West Bound #72 Diversey Bus, dictating my notes on a nondescript film I had just seen, distracted by a rather large white woman wearing a Dominick’s Grocery store cashier’s uniform on the bench opposite me.
I watched as the woman dug her plump index finger into the grey recess of her eye and pulled out a rather substantial piece of ‘sleep,’ an off-color scabrous crumb she delicately balanced between her forefinger and thumb. She considered the curio with all the fascination one might use to inspect a rare gem, weighing it for heft and density much like an orangutan pondering its own genitals.
I was transfixed. As is my wont, I began to invent an elaborate backstory for the woman and wondered how often she smiled at Christmas.
A digression: I don’t know about you, but I’ve encountered very few good Then’s in my life.
For me, Then carries a foreboding editorial on what immediately follows.
“Everything seemed okay at the disco then Bob arrived.”
“ … then the Supreme court rejected the final appeal and sealed Antonio’s fate.”
“Mischa and Walt walked out of the club then were struck by an errant metal splinter.”
Then is not And.
I’m rather fond of And which more often than not seems to usher in welcome news.
“Delmon interviewed for the job and got it.”
“Rudy and Margaret met in a bar, dated, married and soon had a baby”
“Abraham Lincoln waited for a decisive Northern victory, believed he received it at Antietam and freed the slaves.”
In the end I know it’s just semantics but (don’t get me started on but) the more warning signs I can identify and heed at this point, the easier it is to exorcise my 20’s from the haunted apses of my brain.
It was then (<- ahem) I received a text message from Melissa.
“[the] program offered me the same job in Chicago next fall.”
“Cool,” I replied.
“Cool? That’s it?”
Well, yes. I thought it was cool. But I was more than game to offer further encouragement.
“No man that’s awesome.”
The female sleep prospector having exited the bus at Damen Avenue, I returned to dictating my notes genuinely happy for my new friend and wondering what backstory a random person on the bus might ascribe to me.
The next day, while at work, I received another text from Melissa: “Thinking of you.”
I was confused. I turned to my giant ginger Mancunian co-worker, Hugh, in the cubicle next to me and flashed him the text on my phone. I liked Hugh. We helped each other ignore our assigned work with forwarded YouTube videos and various other viral internet sensations.
Married with two kids, Hugh liked to live vicariously through my weekend adventures and love life (mostly stories I made up on the Monday train ride into work) and he knew more than anyone about Melissa and the details of our relationship.
More specifically, Hugh was aware that the relationship was primarily carnal, void of complicated emotional hooks. However, Hugh was also quite familiar with the devastating relationship I had suffered through the previous summer, the fallout from which I was just beginning to recover (I lost that one to a genuine rock star, which, looking back with the detachment and perspective only time can provide, I’m proud that I even had a chip in the game) and he was elated for me.
“Write her back, mate!”
“What do I say?”
Hugh knew that outside of Melissa and I’s sensational running dialogue in bed, our conversation flailed. Melissa didn’t get my jokes and the only subject she spoke passionately (and endlessly) about were her past relationships (which you’ll remember included more than one indiscretion), her undeniable successes on the stage, and an unhealthy, strikingly ugly lust for fame and fortune, ambitions which at the time didn’t seem to include me.
But Hugh reminded me that Melissa liked to drink and f**k. Outside of baseball, my only hobbies.
“Melissa is great in bed but terrible out of it.”
“You could say the same thing about me.”
I didn’t wait for Hugh.
“Really?” I texted.
“Yes. Is that weird??”
Seconds later I received an email from Melissa with an attached photo of a turntable she had purchased the day before. My friends told me she had posted and ‘tagged’ the same photo with my name on Facebook. Some might have been put off, concerned at such a rash act; I was flattered. Some of our best times together were spent smoking joints wearing very little listening to my vast vinyl collection in my bedroom.
Then, the bomb:
“What are you doing for New Year’s?”
Now I needed some help. I showed the latest text to Hugh.
“Well what do you want? Do you think you could possibly build a relationship with her? Do you want to try?”
Hugh is pretty impressive when he wants to be.
Did I want I want a relationship?
Could I build a relationship with Melissa?
Unfortunately and suddenly the litany of faults and discriminative affections I had for Melissa inexplicably began to melt away like the ebbing of soot-ridden snow alongside a Minnesota Interstate in Spring. The receding slush revealed a Melissa I had never seen before and replaced doubt with a new-found heedless adoration for Melissa the Stepford Wife.
Did I want to try?
It’s the foolish and desperate lover that sets sail on a desultory voyage fully aware of its futility. It’s the act of a lonely man. And if nothing else, my relationship with Melissa would finally make me confront and admit that I was a terribly lonely man, had been for years, a state that had been coaxing me subconsciously to make disastrous and ultimately tremendously sad lifestyle choices for the better part of a decade.
“What do you have in mind?” I texted.
“How about we meet in New York?”
The die was cast. Hugh gave me a pat on the back, returned to his computer and forwarded me a video of a three-year-old dancing to Shakira.
In the months leading up to our New Year’s rendezvous, Melissa and I texted or talked on the phone or Skyped with each other nearly every day. The conversations were just as awkward as before but equally as lurid (Skype … oh Skype) and admittedly flowed a tad more easily.
And an excitement did begin to build … albeit an excitement based on naivety and a shared longing for something, anything to click.
More to the point, we began to fall in love with the idea of each other.
We certainly were both living in our heads, living in the mutual fear that we were approaching the age when the years began to skive the possibilities of a shared dream: marriage, kids, mortgage. Again, it was the dance of two desperate people blinded by a puerile notion that any semblance of a healthy relationship could be built on a foundation of quicksand.
Melissa had been cast as an understudy in a Noel Coward revival play on Broadway. I made plans to stay with her in a Brooklyn sublet.
Fittingly enough, I arrived in a blizzard, a blizzard that delayed my arrival of a then-agonizing two days. I crossed the threshold of her apartment, wrapped my arms around her and kissed her. We fell on the bed and made love. Unfortunately the moment would prove the apex of the next four days.
Afterwards, we held each other and popped in a DVD. We were good at that. The bed stuff. Well, mostly. I snore and I drool. But I cuddle and comfort really well. I guess the only thing I don’t do well in bed is sleep.
Later, we struggled for dialogue over a nice dinner in Hell’s Kitchen, returned home, made love again and fell asleep.
Rehearsals kept Melissa in the theater most of the day. I passed the time chumming with friends and barflies at sought-out dive bars I had researched the week before.
We arrived home roughly the same time; Melissa with two hours to kill before an eight o’clock run. I asked her how her day was. Predictably she didn’t ask about mine. We stretched out on the bed, popped in another DVD. Melissa pulled out her computer and began sending emails.
Melissa got up to take a shower in preparation of leaving for her show. She left her computer on the bed. Her G-mail internet page listing all of her recent email conversations sat on the screen.
I didn’t open a damn one. On my honor …
… until … until out of the corner of my eye I noticed a subject line on one of the emails that read: “He’s not the man for me.”
Unethical, sure, illegal, probably, but I opened it.
It was a message from Melissa to one of her close friends: an obnoxious silver spoon I had met briefly in Chicago. I never liked any of Melissa’s friends.
The message read, “Things are going horribly. I need someone strong. He’s intelligent but weak. I don’t like spending time with him. And I finally realize what you said — he’s not that good-looking. It almost makes me angry. I don’t know what to do because he’s going to be here for the rest of the weekend and I think he’s falling for me. I wish you were here so I had an excuse to go out with you instead of with him. Jack is coming by later today I think I will agree to go out.”
There were several other messages with the same heading including one addressed to her mother. I didn’t bother opening them.
Melissa had drawn these conclusions in less than 24 hours.
I was physically sick. My mind raced. What could I do?
In my head, I wanted to cut a Robert Wagner figure in the doorway; to confront Melissa, to ask bluntly and forcefully, “Do you think I’m the man for you?”
“What?” She would ask.
“You left your computer on, I read your email.”
“How dare you!” she would say.
“Yes, I apologize for that and I’m going to give you thirty seconds of deserved outrage then we’re going to talk about what you wrote.”
The other option, I suppose, was to ignore it, shrug, blow out the weekend in style (I was in New York for God’s sake) ramp up for one potentially awkward final conversation, board my plane on Sunday at ease with a former relationship rightly prioritized and a marginally mess-free ending.
I could have done those things. I should have done those things.
Instead, I asked jokingly as she stood in her towel in the doorway of the bathroom, “How do you think, you know, we’re doing as a couple?”
She smiled. “Baby, I’m not as good as expressing myself as you are. But pretend I’m writing you one of your adoring poems right now.” She laughed and stepped into the shower.
I was … I don’t know, just as lost for words. Immediately, I shut down. I buried myself within myself. My anger turned to one part seething self-righteousness, the other part an internal morass of self-pity.
She was right. I was too weak. And certainly not the man for her. Then I betrayed every ounce of what I believed to be my best quality: my strength in times of crisis, the calm I could cast in an otherwise frantic situation.
No, outted as a coward, I decided to flee.
I was scheduled to meet a fan of my Film Review Radio Show for a drink in the East Village. I grabbed my coat, shouted into the shower to Melissa that I needed to move up my appointment and flew.
I won’t bore you with the details of the subsequent agonizing, almost paralyzing train ride into the city. More specifically I can’t bring myself to write them.
“She lies. It’s as simple as that. Without second thought. She’s
Inwardly distraught, I put on my best Radio Matty face, arrived thirty minutes early for my dinner date and stewed over a boilermaker.
Then (eh, exceptions prove the rule) my dinner date walked in. A striking woman, five foot six, she wore what could best be described as a woolen Greta Garbo/Littlest Tramp/Pipi Longstocking winter ensemble. She removed her hilariously over-sized hat, smiled, shook my hand … and began to salvage my weekend.
We talked for two hours. My mind certainly drifted at times, but I managed some genuine laughs; we mostly talked movies, but I turned the better part of the conversation back on her and her incredible accomplishments and brightly lit future in the field of education. A Columbia Ph.D. candidate, she lived in Harlem and I admitted I had always wanted to have a true Harlem Soul Food dinner. She extended an open-ended invitation.
We parted jovially and I watched her walk down the street towards the subway. Then I turned to find the nearest bar.
The burial would continue … this time at sea.
I met Melissa after the show and we rode the subway home to the apartment. That night, we didn’t make love.
The next day was New Year’s Eve. Melissa had made reservations at a renowned restaurant you see on those Food Network channels. I dreaded it. I couldn’t possibly imagine what would happen. What would I say? Could I pull the best acting job of my life? Do I dare confront her over a $400 dollar menu?
Thankfully we were to meet up with my great friend Stan to celebrate his New Year’s birthday at an unassuming Soho dive bar later that night. I only had to make it through five agonizing courses.
I ordered a town car hansom and we arrived in time for a six o’clock reservation. The food was tasteless; apparently in times of emotional agony you lose your palette first. If this had been a first date, we would have shaken hands and called it a lifetime. Luckily each course allowed us the opportunity for a brief conversation: “Hmmm … what do you think? Can I try some of yours?”
Melissa could tell something was wrong and she began to drink — heavily – in hopes, I think, of helping her endure me long enough until our initial 2010 coition. To paraphrase the great philosopher Spackler, “She had that to look forward to … which is nice.”
We arrived early at the bar and continued to drink like two air traffic controllers working the graveyard. We played pool and waited for the guests to arrive in hopes they cut the obvious tension.
But then (again, another exception) something odd began to happen (I feel like I’m writing the beginning of a Dr. Seuss third act): we began to laugh together and, of all things, we began to talk. I don’t remember the common ground we found, but there was no denying we were in the midst of a comfortable, protracted conversation.
And we both realized what was fueling it.
And the $97.00 bar tab at the end of the night offered tangible proof.
Once the guests arrived, we were completely three sheets and relieved, utterly delighted to be so: we danced; we joked; we kissed on the dimly lit dance floor and the fully lit poolroom.
The ball couldn’t drop fast enough for us and we escaped the bar immediately afterwards to try and snag a cab before all of New York began to stumble home. Upon arrival at the apartment, we ran into the bedroom and put the entire Danielle Steele canon to shame.
There were good times, your honor. Lots of ‘em.
The next morning, predictably, I woke in the worst way. I moved myself to the couch because I didn’t want to disturb Melissa with my death throes.
When she woke, the ideal Melissa I had crudely constructed in my head over the past few months suddenly materialized like an apparition wandering through a hang-over induced haze.
She pulled my blanket over my shoulders, kissed me gently on the cheek, ran to the local corner grocery and placed a bottle of 7-Up by my side. She left for the theater and a matinée and when I finally found the strength to greet the day I found notecard after notecard taped around the house, “Eat something baby.”
She began to send me text message after text message, extolling last night’s transcendence. She would be locked into the theater for a double feature for the next 10 hours but she texted that she couldn’t wait for the coming night’s round two.
Around two o’clock, however, I received another text, this one apparently errant. It read, “It was an okay night. Meeting Jack Monday.” I don’t know if it was intended for someone else or a deliberate attempt to make me address the elephant currently sitting on my chest; maybe she really wanted to talk about her concerns and her apparent remedy to them.
Either way, it abruptly sent me hurtling back into the bowels of my cowardly inflated anguish. The daytime nightmares enveloped my head and wouldn’t budge. I called my therapist, shaking, furious.
He talked me off any possible ledge and out of any possible marathon stay at the bar. Cliché as it is, he reminded of me what I had, and I had a lot. He reminded me that one character flaw, a blind, reckless need for companionship which itself was born out of the best intentions needn’t sink or diminish the strength provided me by a catalogue of wonderfully talented and devoted friends, a perfect and fulfilling job, and a long life ahead of me buttressed by both assets.
I plopped on the couch, turned on the TV and tried to lose myself in episodes of Judge Mathis and a nap.
I also called my dinner date from the night before. It was a selfish act, I know, to try and bleed from her further distraction, but I did it anyway.
We met at a no-frills, linoleum and Formica draped Soul Food joint on the border of Morningside Heights and Harlem. The food was delicious, outdone only by the conversation. The whole evening was the anti-Melissa experience: spirited conversational jousting (an awful lot of ‘Whomps’ after a checkmate point made); feisty (which is what I would come to call her) and silly counterpoints; some reflective – not awkward – silence and an overall comfort to match the food — and at least two outright guffaws that sent the cornbread flying.
Is this what they mean by Kismet? When you don’t have to work at it? Organic? I dunno. I don’t like trying to apply logic to the nebulous cosmos that is compatibility. But in most instances, I’ll take the results.
She had a shock of red-hair; the memory of which could tuck you in at night and a wit and intelligence that gave you a reason to wake … okay, reaching Hallmark Card territory again. Go Twins.
The scene was complicated only by the fact that any relationship would have to remain platonic between the two of us. Obviously I lived in Chicago, Feisty in New York. She was also currently in a relationship and unlike Melissa she respected it. The parameters of our relationship would have to remain on ‘friend’ terms.
And after all that I had gone through with Melissa to that point, the thought of nothing more than a friendship with one of the most intelligent, beautiful, and intriguing people I have ever met made the prospect all the more refreshing . (See what I meant about the Hallmark crack. I blame Mother. She cries every time those Budweiser Clydesdales appear on her television every Christmas.)
Having dinner with Feisty that night was indeed one of the best decisions I had made in a long time. If I were a Civil War General who turned the tide at some nameless battle, or a Chess Master who suddenly flanked his opponent’s rook, it might have been considered a great tactical maneuver. Thankfully I am neither. It was a move predicated on emotion, self-preservation, indecision and it hurt inside to do it.
As an aside, ever since I made the fateful decision to meet with Feisty that night, our relationship has proved both exhilarating and frustrating – namely because geography stubbornly refuses to cooperate in enabling it.
And I’ve made a promise to myself never to blog about Feisty in the future. I promise not to blog about her because I hope the story remains open-ended. For now, I consider myself far too lucky to be able to count her as a friend. Though to this point, I don’t know if she posts bail.
After dinner with Feisty, I made my way over to the Upper East Side and a party thrown by some friends associated with a weekly live Saturday night comedy program. I sat in a luxuriously furnished art-deco living room trying my best to be present, to enjoy the jokes, jabs, and potential skits being bandied about the room (comedians always feel the annoying need to be “on”) but my thoughts were in Brooklyn.
I felt terrible about prolonging my absence from Melissa but I also still felt terribly hurt. To my knowledge, I had never been lied to by a woman about something so critical to a relationship, even two-men-at-the-same-time-Magee was always upfront about her feelings (see Rock Star) — nor had I ever lied to one. It seemed unconscionable and foreign to me, and I never felt more like a rube from the prairie as I did in that chair in a beautiful apartment sitting near a picture window overlooking a moonlit Central Park.
“She’s vindictively competitive around women
and her insecurity drives her towards men.”
I returned to the Brooklyn apartment and Melissa. It was late. Melissa had sent me several texts earlier in the evening asking me where I was. I invited her up to the East Side get-together but she knew the invitation was cursory at best.
She was sitting on the couch, swallowed by a gigantic tarry cloth robe. She smiled when I entered the room, turned off the TV and we went directly to bed in a far too palpable near-silence.
The next day, I was to meet her between the matinée and evening shows before heading to the airport. She left at eleven in the morning.
I wouldn’t see her again for four months. And unfortunately I would see her again in four months.
I moved my departure up to an earlier flight. It was to leave at five o’clock and would prevent me meeting Melissa during her break between shows at four.
“Got an earlier flight. Wanted to catch the tail end of friend’s birthday party,” I text-lied.
It was a childish thing to do. And I realized it at the time. I looked out at the city I loved hoping against hope that my recovery time was brief and wouldn’t tarnish my affection for the city.
I’m not proud of running out on a good-bye. But my expedited escape proved cathartic and accelerated a healing process that found me almost completely recovered by the end of the week.
There was a part of me that hoped eventually Melissa and I could become friends. Benefit of the doubt, she didn’t mean to hurt me. Truly, if anything I was the one at fault, too weak and stubborn to address the issue at hand.
Who knows? If I had been strong enough to challenge Melissa on her feelings, it might have proved to be a turning point in our relationship.
But I was content to live with those questions unasked, let alone answered.
By the following weekend, Melissa was out of my mind, out of my life. And I found myself in the same contented place I had been after putting her on that plane to Los Angeles months earlier in Chicago.
“I really love little boys” — a phrase best not uttered in conversation, polite or otherwise. Doubly so if you’re wearing a hairshirt on a bus. But I think it’s true. I think little boys are an amazing species all their own.
Having been one, of course, I have some inside knowledge. Little Boys (and I realize there is a great swath of exceptions to every generalization – save the emails) value dirt, farts and frogs. And they don’t mind throwing all three at anybody.
Little Boys also love sports. At least I still hope they do. I grew up without the internet and the X-box, so I don’t know. Maybe there are generations that haven’t seen the sun in years and wouldn’t know Greg Maddux from Sonic the Hedgehog (is that still a thing?).
When I was a Little Boy I would spend hours on the basketball court shooting the basketball endlessly, pretending to be the shooting guard from off the bench called upon by an invisible, irascible coach to hit a crucial three pointer near the end of a game. I threw footballs up in the air, ran under them to catch them and sprinted against invisible would-be tacklers on our family’s long stretch of lawn.
And I played baseball.
Lots of baseball. With friends, with strangers in the park, even by myself. I’d throw tennis ball after tennis ball against our garage door in hopes of developing a curve ball (didn’t happen).
I’d live and die with every single Minnesota Twins game, my hometown team; we lived in a valley in Southern Minnesota without television reception (sometimes you could catch 11:30 pm syndicated Cheers reruns if our antenna [dad never bothered to take it down when it proved useless] was positioned just so). So I was forced to listen to the games on the radio, listen to the great languid baritone play-by-play of ol’ Herb Carneal calling the action. When the Twins were playing a late game on the West Coast I’d fall asleep with my baseball glove tucked under my pillow, the glove wrapped in rubber bands, oiled and with a baseball nestled into its webbing in order to form the perfect pocket.
Every morning in the summer I lay on the floor of our living room, the Minneapolis Star Tribune sports section spread out before me (just as my father did as a kid my grandmother insists). I devoured every box score of the ballgames the night before, any story, any word about my beloved Twins. I shook my head or nodded in agreement with columnists Pat Reusse and Dan Barreiro when they ran columns on the Twins and the team’s skin-flint owners Calvin Griffith and Carl Pohlad. And I tracked every statistic and mention of my favorite player, goofy Mickey Hatcher, traded to Los Angeles the year before the Twins won their first World Series.
As far as attending actual games, my parents took me to two or three a year. I can easily put myself in the way back of our station wagon; glove in hand in hopes of catching a homerun or foul ball; wearing a homemade Kent Hrbek jersey, a black Sharpie-d #14 outlined with Red Magic Marker on a worn white t-shirt
Oh, it seemed an eternity to get to Minneapolis and its Metrodome, the stadium home of the Twins, an ugly hulking bubble rising above the Minneapolis skyline. It was named after my favorite statesman, the Happy Warrior himself, Hubert H Humphrey. Perhaps not the best paean to the great statesman’s legacy but I hope the name Hubert H Humphrey Metrodome lives on forever in lieu of the name of some faceless corporation, a name like Target Field, the tony new home of the Twins.
In reality both Minneapolis and its Dome were only an hour away from my house. When I was old enough to drive myself to a game, it almost came as a disappointment. The baseball cathedral of my youth became so accessible, far too accessible. The stadium no longer existed as a sports Xanadu that you were allowed to visit only once or twice a year.
And you could take girls now.
As a boy though, once there, the experience became near magical. As I walked from the parking lot outside the old train depot next to the Spaghetti Factory restaurant in a rather commercially barren district of Minneapolis , the buzz, the circus began to envelop, invigorate and frighten me the closer I neared the stadium.
The smells, the vendors, the concrete buttresses of the Metrodome’s outdoor concourse – all seemed dizzying and larger-than-life. I held my dad’s hand, ticket in the other, nervous about going through the Metrodome gate’s turn-style, wanting to do it exactly right, exactly like everyone else.
People can scoff that my Major League Baseball experience took place in the stuffy confines of the Metrodome, widely considered the worst baseball stadium in the history of the Majors. But the Dome was mine and it held my beloved Twins and I didn’t know any better.
I had no idea the Metrodome’s wretched specs were supposed to tarnish my love for the game.
I had no idea the Metrodome sightlines were the worst in all of baseball. I was more than content to sit in the rafters of the stadium looking down on the team with binoculars, craning my neck against those terrible sightlines, the Twins players on the field appearing no larger than ants wearing red and white polyester jerseys.
I had no idea you weren’t supposed to be able to bounce the baseball off the playing field like shortstop Greg Gagne did off the Metrodome’s grayish worn Astroturf carpet before games.
All that mattered was that I was occupying the same house as the great Kirby Puckett patrolling center field; my eyes never left him, they tracked him everywhere on the field and into the dugout even when he wasn’t at bat. I loved watching Kirby instinctively know the exact trajectory of a fly ball off the crack of an opponent’s bat.
And it sparked a love for the game that I will never surrender.
Now living in Chicago, I have a new baseball cathedral to attend: the friendly confines of Wrigley Field. Older now, I can appreciate better where the game should be played. It should be played in stadiums like Wrigley Field whose only trimmings could have come from any decade: the big manual scoreboard listing every score from every game, the ivy on the outfield walls, the bricked walls, the beautiful red sign adorning the outside of the stadium welcoming you to undeniably the best stadium in baseball.
Still nothing will ever replace the memories of my Twins winning two World Series in the cavernous Metrodome; of watching my stoic grandfather cry as third baseman Gary Gaetti threw across the diamond to clinch the ’87 World Series. Or announcer Jack Buck making the raspy call in Game Six of the ’91 Series when Kirby put the team on his back and hit the homerun off veteran left-hander Charlie Leibrandt to send the Series to a Game Seven.
Buck called that homerun almost immediately as soon as the ball left Puckett’s bat, called it so matter-of-factly: “We’ll see you tomorrow night.” Replays of the call still give me chills. And of course the next night, Game Seven, St. Paul native Jack Morris pitched a yeoman ten innings to win perhaps the greatest Game Seven of all time.
Older now, I know the history of the Dome (http://www.amazon.com/Uncovering-Dome-Amy-Klobuchar/dp/0881332186). I know why I should have despised it. But that plastic loaf of bread held the only heroes I’ve ever looked up to in my life outside of my father.
Anyway, back to little boys.
Seriously, I know how that reads. I’m probably on some internet watch list as we speak. But as a Little Boy myself, my favorite activity was to sit in the Metrodome’s hard plastic blue seats and keep score of the game.
I learned how to keep score from a birthday present from my grandfather: an everything-you-need-to-know baseball book complete with stickers of current baseball stars (oddly I remember the Glenn Davis of the Houston Astros sticker more than any other). The book was endorsed by Red Barber, the legendary baseball announcer — though I doubt he had anything to do with the Glenn Davis sticker.
Keeping score of a baseball game is an art form in and of itself. And like every artist, score keepers employ their own unique scoring techniques. Personally, I’ve never strayed from the score-keeping ways outlined in Red Barber’s stickered pages I devoured as a nine-year old.
For those not familiar with the art of scoring a game, a baseball scorecard features blank squares across a white cardboard page, the squares representing every at-bat a team takes. Along the left-hand side of the card live larger rectangles allowing for the name of each player.
One side of the scorecard houses the home team. The other the visitors.
During the game you use a unique Baseball Cuneiform to track each play as the game unfolds: 1B signifies a base hit, an 8 denotes a fly to center, a CS is a caught stealing and so on, every play identifiable by its own symbol and language.
It’s not an overly complicated science. Nor is it expensive to play. At the Metrodome a scorecard cost a dollar. Still does. A Twins pencil ran you fifty cents.
I won’t go into the nuances of my individual system but keeping score was my way of inserting myself into the game, of practically placing myself right there on the field. To me, every stroke of the pencil I made on that card affected the outcome of the game itself.
I never wavered in keeping tabs of each at-bat, each pitch. When I went to the restroom or the concession stand it was incumbent on my mother or father to keep track of what happened so that I could score the plays accordingly upon my return.
It truly was a labor of love. But there was nothing ‘labor’ about it.
I didn’t keep any of those scorecards for posterity. To me they were entirely ethereal just like the game itself. I didn’t need a tangible record that I attended the game. I scored the game with the same attitude of a player or coach or even the bullpen catcher. I shook off a loss and didn’t dwell on a victory. Baseball is unlike any other sport. It’s a marathon. There will always be another game.
Even without the piles of scorecards, I can almost recollect each Twins game I ever attended and, of course, scored. I’ll admit none of the games I attended were all that memorable save for Game One of the 1991 World Series against the Atlanta Braves. I remember scoring every one of big Jack Morris’s pitches that night even though I was practically tucked behind a concrete pole three rows from the edge of the Metrodome’s Teflon ceiling. Oddly the moment I remember most vividly was every other fan turning towards me at the game’s start. The fans weren’t looking at me but rather the American Flag looming behind me.
About a month ago those long ago memories were rekindled.
I snagged two tickets tucked under the upper mezzanine of Wrigley field, right behind home plate for a Cubs-Astros game (Glenn Davis unfortunately long departed from Houston). It was a day game, of course, a dying phenomenon demanded by Wrigley Field and the surrounding neighborhood’s civic ordinances.
I attended the game with my then special Rogers Park Lady Friend.
And I didn’t keep score.
With nothing invested in either team unfortunately my mind wandered. An act that would have been considered utter sacrilege to a ten-year-old Matty.
I hate to admit I was often times more interested in the beer and concessions than the game. I missed pitches, even some runs. I even checked my damn phone.
Mind you, I haven’t turned my back on baseball. My ex-girlfriends will attest to that. I still watch Twins games religiously on the baseball satellite TV package most every night. And I listen to the streaming radio broadcast of the games on the internet. The sounds of baseball still provide the soundtrack to my summer … and I still can’t bring myself to read the Sports section of the newspaper the day after a Twins loss.
My love of baseball is still there but it’s cluttered and muted by the demands of day-to-day adult stuff and responsibilities. Writing this blog piece is about as much time I can devote to reveling in my appreciation for the game.
But sitting only two seats away from me at that perfect summer Cubs game was a true fan, a Little Boy decked out in his Cubbie blue, hanging on every pitch. I’m not good with determining ages, but I’m guessing he couldn’t have been much more than a couple of years on the older side of eight if that.
And in his hand was a scorecard.
He didn’t squirm in his seat. He didn’t give any hue and cry for a plastic helmet full of ice cream or some twenty-dollar bobble from the team store. He cheered loudly, standing when a fly ball appeared to be heading to the bleachers; he scored and he marked every single at-bat, he captured each run (signified by a DOT), every stolen base (SB in the upper right-hand or left-hand corner depending on the base stolen), and he shook his head when a Cubs infielder muffed a routine ground ball (E6). And when he went to the bathroom accompanied by his dad, he handed the scorecard to Mom. She turned and asked me what was happening on every play during the inning he missed.
She had to get it right.
So did I.
Here’s The Part of My Blog Wherein I Attempt to Exorcise Yet Another Extended Lost Weekend of a Relationship: Part 1
Mother would like me to add a disclaimer to every blog post. These reflections ARE fictionalized. In fact, Mother insists the entry you are about to read is complete fiction – it’s simply a collection of Blog Matty Ballgame’s insecurities and failings with women put in parable form.
Somewhere, somehow, somebody must have kicked you around some …
- Tom Petty, Refugee
When the woman you’re dating reveals herself as a near-unabashed solipsist, you have one of two choices: run away (prudence), or, out of some sense of masochistic curiosity, decide to follow the thread dangled before you, clinging to it as it pulls you down a six month-long, spiraling, debilitating rabbit hole before revealing what type of twisted emotional ball of yarn lives at its end.
I’m curious by nature. I will always touch the electric fence before pissing on it first.
I met Melissa in the fall of 2009. October, I think. I was just getting out of another Blog-worthy disastrous relationship with a woman determined to date two men at the same time. A mutual friend, whom I am still proud to call my friend, introduced us.
Melissa was an actor by trade but that fall of 2009 found her teaching Tennessee Williams to a group of young Norwegians in Chicago. I don’t have a joke here. I think that’s awesome. Melissa was looking for someone to hang out with her in a town she didn’t know too well. My friend had told her I was Nice Men: smart, funny, and sparkling baby blue bedroom eyes.
My friend told me that Melissa was sensual, intelligent and prone to walking around the house naked smoking a joint.
This intrigued me.
Melissa and I met on a Sunday night for a screening of Howl, the pseudo-gonzo dramatization of all things Allen Ginsberg. The film starred an ill-fitting James Franco as Ginsberg. The screening was held at the Music Box Theatre on the North Side of Chicago and afterwards Melissa and I wandered to a faux Irish Pub for drinks.
I don’t remember the initial conversation all that well, which, as you’ll see, would prove telling. I do remember thinking Melissa was certainly easy on the eyes with incredible wide-saucered eyes of her own; she was obviously intelligent and she looked fantastic with her hair up. I told her as much. She would remember that compliment throughout our relationship. I think it’s what earned me a ‘yes’ when I asked if she’d like to attend our annual Cheesecake and Cocktails Party the following Saturday.
The Cheesecake and Cocktail Party demands proper formal attire. I wore my dark three-piece that makes me look like an usher at some lesser known European royal wedding. I ordered a town car to pick us up an hour before the party. Melissa didn’t know Chicago that well, so I thought a drive down Lakeshore Drive at night and a tour of some of Chicago’s various sights might prove fun.
During the car ride, I learned Melissa had visited Chicago before. Lived in Chicago for three months in fact while doing a show. She starred in a traveling musical adaptation of the movie Road House. She played the love interest opposite a gorgeous Patrick Swayze look-alike; Faux Swayze was an Australian, who, as one reviewer put it, “offered an American accent that was completely unrecognizable; the man couldn’t mumble his way out of the acting bag to save his life.” He also turned out to be a complete sleazeball … more on this later.
After playing the bush league theatrical circuit of Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles, Roadhouse The Musical had designs on Broadway. One problem: Roadhouse The Musical was godawful terrible. The show closed within three weeks playing L.A., the one city you think would embrace the musical’s camp – though my using that adjective to describe the appeal of the show earned me serious demerits from Melissa, and rightfully so.
The night of Cheesecake and Cocktails, Melissa wore her hair up and a stunning dress, wore it and left it for dead. The dress didn’t stand a chance.
Upon arrival, the men of the Cheesecake emerged from the Men’s Parlor (the downstairs) smelling of cigar smoke, brandy and Wii bowling. To a man, they stopped in the door’s threshold like the Mouseketeers holding for their in introductory close-up, ogling at Melissa and her dress and her pinned hair, each one momentarily stopped in their tracks.
She owned the room and the party. And she knew it. We ate cheesecake and she mingled like a professional, sashaying across the floor looking incredible as she navigated one pod of strangers after another. I tried to keep my distance. At this point I was happy simply to introduce her to some new contacts while she was in the city.
I really wasn’t keen on starting anything remotely romantic with Melissa for practical reasons. She would be leaving to go back home to Los Angeles in a month and I knew she had dated one of my very good friends from graduate school, dated him and devastated him by sleeping with someone else while they were together.
“She’s talented, but she’s a broken soul.”
There will be asides running throughout this recounting, advice given to me during our relationship. Unfortunately the advice didn’t come from some internal Jiminy Cricket (my Cricket having walked headlong into a train round ’bout my junior year of college) but rather from people who have known and worked with Melissa, some people unfortunately whom Melissa would count among her shrinking stable of friends.
Halfway through the party, I wandered into our kitchen from the back lawn. I looked at Melissa across the room. She caught my eye and gave me the low five “come over here” with her hand. One of the sexiest moves a woman can pull. I crossed the room to her and she put her arm around me. I was hooked.
We made our way from conversation to conversation until we found ourselves at the end of the sidewalk in my backyard. I kissed her. She kissed me. And we discovered we were both pretty great kissers. We must have kissed and held each other on that lawn for ten minutes. People watched. I didn’t care. It was my party; go get your shine box.
My roommates smiled widely. They knew the relationship hell I had been through the past summer and they couldn’t have been happier for me. My roommate DJ, the responsible one, then with a child on the way, had given me a pep talk only two days prior, “Matty, you need to go into your next relationships with absolutely no anticipation of marrying the woman. Just have fun.”
This felt like fun.
At the end of the night, we found ourselves in my bedroom. I discovered Melissa looked just as stunning without the dress. She stayed the night. A gentleman never tells. But let’s just say it worked. Very well.
But Great Sex really is like a great baseball double play combination isn’t it? You just instinctively know what the other person is going to do, timing and movements completely in sync … sigh. We turned a couple nice plays that night.
Melissa and I saw each other again the next Sunday. Almost didn’t. I was coming home from a day of watching a triple feature of films. I just wanted to lie down with a beer and watch something, anything! without credits.
As I stepped into my house, I received a text: “naked smoking joint grading papers.”
The rumors were true.
Naively, I asked my roommates how I should respond. “Get thee to the crosstown bus – better yet, here’s cab fare,” they demanded.
And so I did. I arrived to find a disappointed Melissa. Disappointed that her cross to the front door to let me into her shared apartment required she put on some clothes. I shared her pain.
In retrospect that Sunday was the night when the first red flags were raised and went unheeded.
The beginning of the end (and we are far from the end) started innocuously enough in the weathered bowels of a collection of warped photo albums. I sat there as Melissa pulled out album after album onto her lap. I sat cross-legged and stared picture after picture of handsome, smiling men, arms draped around an equally smiling Melissa in front of churches in Toledo, Spain, castled walls in Budapest, and marine-layer draped beachscapes in Southern California. The albums also held scores of pictures of Melissa’s many acting triumphs on Broadway and of course playbills from the ill-fated Roadhouse tour.
It was at this point I learned that her Roadhouse co-star, a 40 something Australian playing Patrick Swayze’s doppelganger, father of two with a wife of ten years, had an affair with a 26-year-old girl just out of graduate school during the musical’s run. The girl was Melissa. Doing the math in my head, I calculated at that point during her tour Melissa the 26-year-old was actually cheating on my friend with two men.
As we thumbed through the pages of the albums and listened to Melissa’s corresponding commentary, I began to get a sense of Melissa’s true self. Unfortunately it was a personality I was far too used to encountering in the acting world: the type of wandering soul in need of constant and nurturing praise, daily praise for accomplishments, big and small, past and present. Though in Melissa’s case, mostly the past — new opportunities for acting work did not seem to be dotting her horizon.
The slide show continued. She showed me articles, newspaper clippings, honest-to-God blue ribbons validating her successes all the way back to high school. And she talked, mostly of herself, entirely of herself; she talked of how her friends in acting school called her “Streep” because of her apparently limitless talent and of the number of compliments she had received from Hollywood stars she had played opposite on Broadway.
And despite my growing wariness at the burgeoning appearance of Melissa’s narcissism, I put on my best face and nodded along … in the hope the promised naked dope smoking would eventually make an appearance.
In my oversexed tither I failed to neglect a trend that night that would prove telling throughout the relationship: her lack of asking questions about me.
Not a one.
Looking back throughout the entirety of our relationship, Melissa simply didn’t seem interested in asking me anything. Not a “How was your day? How’s the weather? How’s your family.” In fact, later in the relationship, when I told her I was travelling to Minnesota to stay with my sister, Linnea, she asked, “Who’s that?” I responded, “My sister, Linnea.” She grew perturbed and said, “You never told me that. God, you never tell me anything.”
Thankfully the naked time eventually materialized. Afterwards, I felt like a middle manager forced to sit through a meaningless two-hour PowerPoint presentation just for the promised sandwich lunch afterwards – a long, decadent, steamy sandwich lunch.
Over the next couple of weeks, we continued to have fun and enjoy the city: Chicago Blackhawks games, $.25 cent oyster nights at Shaw’s Crabhouse, late night burritos, and pub crawls.
The night before Melissa was to leave for her home in Los Angeles I slept over at her apartment and we woke early the next day. That morning Melissa was preoccupied (rightly so) with the logistics of getting to the airport and tying up loose ends with her Chicago landlords.
We parted with a hug and I watched her drive off in a taxi towards O’Hare airport. I asked her to text me when she made it home; I know that might come off as the annoying act of an overly concerned parent but it’s something I do. I think it’s because I simply would want someone to do the same for me. In fact, I’ve promised myself to marry the first woman who does.
I walked all the way home from Melissa’s North Center neighborhood apartment to my house in Logan Square. It was a perfect, crisp Chicago October day. It smelled of fall and I looked forward to a lazy day of watching college football and not much else.
It was a clean break. The first I’d had in a long time. And it felt good.
Part 2: Coming Soon