Sunday, September 30, 2007

Follow The Leader

I love America, I do, for lots of contradictory reasons. I'm just now in the middle of watching a deathly serious PBS documentary on World War II, recounting the sacrifices some made for our individual freedom. And I'm surrounded by playful, lighthearted goofballs who thrive in it.

Two weeks ago I saw the most charming hometown parade ever, in Nebraska City. Endless marching bands, tanks, politicians, fat guys on skinny scooters in nearly out-of-control formations, and—thankfully—not so many horses. People on floats threw candy while parents prodded their stupefied children to dash in front of giant green troop transport trucks with crushing wheels taller than me. "Go, Timmy, or you won't get any!" Just a week before, these same four-year-olds probably wandered into an empty street and got spanked for it. This is how American children learn to be adaptable.

Parades are a show of force. We forget now, but in wars past we sent troops off with a parade, and brought back whoever was left with another parade. And in every parade, bulbous tanks waddle right down the middle of the street, cannons aimed ominously while emboldened babies risk fingers and toes diving between the tractor cleats to retrieve pale, dry candy they wouldn't accept on a random Tuesday if you handed it to them.

When City Hall wants to entertain you, they line up tanks and drive them down Main Street. Foreign governments, when they want to take over your town, do the same thing. So maybe the best way to conquer a city would be to dress up a few Shriners and a small marching band and have them toss candy while leading fifty tanks up to City Hall while we clap and wave. "Those black and red flags with the stars and squiggles—they're new, aren't they?"

A friend just tested for his U.S. citizenship. In salute we buried him in a flurry of sassy e-mails teasing him about what it means to be American: bottomless bags of Cheesy-Poofs, American Idol, unaffordable health care and beating up tiny countries. From the youngest member of our group came this:

We also have department stores with cheap toilet paper and soap, toilets that flush and sinks to wash our hands. We have churches, temples, mosques, synagogues, and flaming pentagrams. We have Neosporin and Bandaids and bicycles and cars to drive to and fro. We have FedEx on every corner. We have gallons of milk and jars of peanut butter the size of your head.

We are lucky.

This writer was raised in the sweet Iowa countryside by loving parents, amidst plentiful food and a supportive school. But she sure sounds like someone who lived through 1941.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Seeing The Light

It was a special occasion. A big Lyle Lovett fan, I was going to see him for the first time. I even wore my fancy bolo tie.

Bolos were once fashionable. Regular people wore them on purpose. Mine was special: handmade, a gleaming silver trapezoid with a gorgeous amber tiger eye gem in the center. It was a gift from Sue. So were the Lyle tickets. She was a great girlfriend.

The Orpheum is big but manages to be intimate. We sat directly in the middle. It felt like Lyle was singing right to me. And then, suspiciously, it really felt like that. Lyle winked at me.

It was more than a wink. It was a very big, exaggerated, twisted wink. He kept looking right at me, turning his head this way and that as if to say, "I'm not certain, but is that Michael Campbell out there in the audience?" My heart stopped.

It's not so crazy, because I dream of stuff like that happening all the time. I once wrote a song inspired by Lovett. I sent him a demo, addressed to "Lyle Lovett, Klein, Texas." I figured that was sufficient, given the size of Klein and the size of Lyle. I didn't hear back, but that was fine because he had just met Julia Roberts and I figured he was pretty busy with that. But still, whenever he released a new album I'd check to see if my song was on it.

He looked my way again, straining to see through the piercing stage lights. No question about it, he's looking at me. Even Sue noticed it, and she was used to guys staring at her. Maybe he got that CD after all!

A miracle happened. Sue's friend, a local record store exec, caught up with us at intermission. "We sponsored a contest and the winner gets a signed guitar and the chance to go backstage to meet Lyle," he said. "At the end of the show, just fall in behind me and act like you're part of the entourage—you'll probably get to meet him too. The worst that could happen is the guards might shoot you." I didn't think twice.

For the entire remainder of the show Lyle glanced, squinted and winked my way. But now I knew my moment was at hand. "Hi Lyle!" I rehearsed in my head. "I look familiar, you say? Really...oh, perhaps you remember me from my latest CD. Perhaps you've seen it somewhere..."

The scheme worked. I strode backstage with mock confidence, so close behind Mr. Record Store that he looked like he had a Siamese twin. It was a short reception line. And there He was.

Lyle is surprisingly beautiful up close. Vivid blue eyes and a kind face. This was good news, because if the reason he was winking at me through the whole show was because he was gay, I had a decision to make. I knew Sue would understand. I know she would have ditched me for him too.

My turn came fast. Lyle didn't look at my face. He looked at my tie. "Ah-hah! The bolo guy," he said. "That damned thing kept reflecting and blinding me through the whole show."

Sue took an almost imperceptible slide-step to avoid the presumption that we were together.

I understood.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Big Green Balls

When I had last played softball, the bases were made of rocks and the hide on the leather ball was still attached to the animal. So when I agreed to play again this year on the Mighty Mick's team, I expected some changes.

What I didn't expect was that there are new rules, and there are Omaha rules. The city calls itself the Softball Capital of The World—indeed it has more fields per capita than other city—so it only takes a tiny bit more arrogance to rewrite how the game is played altogether for its own convenience.

My first surprise was that the unsportsmanlike fees we paid to join the association don't pay the umpires. We are expected to slip them some cash before each game, which, in other sports, gets you ejected. I also made the mistake of giving them the correct amount, which is probably a reason we lost every game but one.

The point in Omaha is to get the game over with—indeed, get four games over with in four hours, such that the umpires can go home regardless of whether you are finished. It's no longer a game—it's a Softball Factory. I imagine they learned it from the Chinese.

To help you speed things along in Omaha they add a tenth person to the outfield. You start off with a count of one ball and one strike, before you even lift your bat. After three balls a female walks to first base, but a male gets to go on to second. Females are pitched a different ball to hit than males. And my personal favorite Omaha-ism of all: hit the ball over the outfield fence and it's a home run. Do it again and it's an automatic out. That is, if you're good, you're now bad.

If you learn to avoid all those landmines and manage to have fun for the whole hour, the boys in blue will call off the game. Can't run late. Git'r done.

It works, though: after hearing all those crippling rules, I felt the game was already half over before it started. And with a 7:30pm start time clear across town, I was always home by 9:00pm. Chop-chop!

Our team learned the hard way that the infield is made of sandpaper. They mix gravel with the dirt because it's cheaper for them to maintain. (Maybe they'll save enough money to pay their umpires.) I took human anatomy in high school but learned more about the muscles and tendons of the leg after watching Justin slide into second. I also learned you can get kicked out of a game for bleeding.

Ball uniforms—those pinstripe collarless shirt and Capri pants—used to be something you could only wear to a ballfield, or on Halloween. Omahans today wear the same thing they wear to a fancy restaurant: t-shirt, saggy shorts and dirty sneakers. The ballcap now is worn in one of various symbolic orientations, depending on whether you are, or aspire to be, black.

Sour Grapes Alert: our combined score over seven games was 15-126. But at least the whole season only took six hours (two games were called off early due to lopsided scores). And yes, it hurts a little that we only won one game, during which we used one of the opposing team's pitchers. And I was absent that night.