Saturday, August 23, 2014

US Open Qualifying 2014

So far the Qualies have cooked up a slew of nail-biters, plenty of 3-setters, and a good chunk of tiebreakers. Since the home of the Open is in my backyard in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Queens, I take advantage (pardon the tennis pun) and head out to this beautiful four-day binge.

Day one is balmy, an SPF 70 Aveeno Suncreen day if ever there was one and you can feel the endless possibilities for these 256 hungry players, vying for 36 spots into the main draw in the last leg of the Slams (128 men and 128 women). The tournament is single elimination, think gladiators with racquets and headbands instead of swords and maces. Since word broke that last year’s champ, Raphael Nadal, would have to bow out of the tournament, there’s been a big sigh of disappointment. Djokovic and Federer
have bumped up to the 1 and 2 seeds, and a lucky loser will get to take Nadal’s vacant spot.

I’m watching Roberto Marcora from Italy who is currently ranked 221 in the world. He has amassed a whopping $19,309 to date for singles play and $587 for doubles. At this rate, he’ll be lucky to clear $35K for the year. Peanuts. Consider this: tennis, unlike team sports (baseball, football, and basketball) you are responsible for your own transportation, housing accommodations, and sunflower seed addiction. In his first match, Marcora up 4 – 2 in the 3rd set, is serving at 30 all, he blasts his first serve into the net. His second serve is an offspeeder into the box and wins a sweet rally only to have the line judge reverse the call. They replay the point and it’s an awesome one, Marcora makes an unbelievable get, outstretched, driving the ball down the line. He follows it up with a service winner. The next game the Serbian holds and Marcora has a chance to serve out the match. At 30 all they’re trading monster forehands as a 747 soars overhead. Although the groundies are muted by the plane, the grunts are still audible. Marcora cranks out an 129 mph ace down the T and then lets loose a barbaric yawp to celebrate his victory.

His second match is another nail-biter, but this time the #4 seed Facundo Bagnis is pushing him to the limit. The Argentine has a solid ground game and he is pinning Marcora to the baseline. They trade corner shots, but Marcora miss-hits a crosscourt forehand. His backhand doesn’t have the same zip as the day before. Bagnis also looks hungrier and takes it in 3 sets and will have one final challenge. He will face the American Ernesto Escobedo.

I had the chance to watch the old-timer, 36-year-old Michael Russell. The American has been a staple on the ATP for the past 14 years and reached a career high at #60 in 2007. Michael holds the dubious distinction of being the all-time USTA Pro Circuit singles champ with 24 titles. That’s like being the all-time Triple A homerun champ. Russell doesn’t waste any time in his first hurdle, dispelling Enrique Lopez-Perez of Spain in straight sets 6 – 1, 6 – 4. They play on Court 11, which is something of a mini grandstand. Russell is decked out in his Day-glo green and black top and is bouncing around like a clubber in the Meatpacking. Lopez-Perez is fast and has a wicked forehand, but Russell doesn’t seem impressed by it. On the changeover, Russell sits under the umbrella the ballperson has opened, and appears deep in thought as he sips his Evian. The ump intones, “Time” and both players spring from their movie director-style chairs. The Spaniard is adjusting his strings as he walks to the baseline. He cranks out a big serve down the T and Russell blocks it back. They trade 5 or 6 crosscourt forehands before Russell goes the other way and Lopez-Perez sprays a backhand wide. They seem to be even, trading winners and Russell will only barely eke out the Spaniard in that department 22 to 19, but Russell exploits his opponent’s weakness, the backhand. Lopez-Perez goes on to fluff 18 of those suckers. He makes 29 unforced errors in all to Russell’s 17 unforced errors. Russell also breaks his opponent twice as many times 4 – 2.

In the Second Round, Russell squares off with Belgium’s Steve Darcis. This is less a continuation of where Russell had left off and more of an uphill battle. He never seems to find his rhythm and ends up getting spanked by Darcis in straight sets.

Two Americans face each other in round 2, the up-and-coming Rhyne Williams and the seasoned journeyman, Rajeev Ram. Williams, a 23-year-old, qualified for the Australian Open back in January. His biggest show to date was in Delray Beach where he reached the quarterfinals. This guy looks like he has some promise. Ram, on the other hand, has been around for a while. He’s been to the quarters of Wimbledon, French Open, and Australian Open. His forte is doubles and he’s been in the top 50 for some time. Doubles is not singles and now Ram is scrapping it out in the singles qualies. Both players had fairly easy first-rounders.

It’s hard to watch two Americans battling it out. Who do you give your heart to the youngblood from Boca Raton or the seasoned doubles’ pro? Maybe you want to pull for Williams, hoping he can improve on his 1st round loss in the main draw of the 2012 Open. Ram has another idea. He comes out of the box with great composure and is really clocking his serves. He’s got great flow and is in control. Williams never really gets the upper hand. Not that he makes a lot of errors, but he is clearly outplayed. Ram doesn’t outgun his opponent, he outplays him without making a double fault or an unforced error. He’s off the court in little over an hour 6 – 3, 6 – 2. He will have to face the 7-seeded German, Andreas Beck.

As the gate shuts on many talented players, the gate opens for others. It’s a lot of fun watching these rising stars because who knows who for sure will make it to the next stage. Who will be the next Gilles Mueller, the first Luxembuorgian to advance to the Quarterfinals of a Grand Slam event back in 2008? He did it as a qualifier.

It’s time now for my banana break so I can take in the second half of the grueling day’s schedule. I hear Sharapova is practicing on Louie Armstrong. See you courtside

Friday, August 8, 2014

Open Your Piehole and Say Ahhhh

Mary Roach writes about science the way I eat my Chunky Monkey ice-cream. She has a marvelous sense of humor, and could decorate Rockefeller Center’s Christmas tree with her myriad factoids. If you enjoyed her previous book Stiff (about cadavers), this follow-up will totally knock your socks off. Again, Roach answers many interesting questions about our innards, and although some of the subjects might’ve seemed dry in Bio 101, our talented author makes you regret the fact that you don’t wear a lab coat to work.

Her chapter “Liver and Opinion” really cuts to the heart of our cultural predilections for food— why we eat what we eat, and why, for example kidneys and liver got packaged under the splendid moniker “variety meats” back in the ‘40s and ‘50s. She gives examples of how cultural food bias can be taken to extremes when on the Burke and Wills expedition in the 1860s, some of the British explorers were so repulsed by what the Australian Aborigines ate that the British explorers ended either getting scurvy or starving to death.

There’s an awesome essay on the Pre-WWI “Chew Freak”, Horace Fletcher, who suggested that efficient mastication could help trim the National Debt. Kafka, apparently was a Fletcherist, and took painstaking efforts to prolong his meals by excessive chewing so much so his father was said to have “hid behind a newspaper at dinnertime to avoid watching the writer Fletcherize”. Today chewing is still an important area of research. Andries van der Bilt leads a research team at the University Medical Center at Utrecht. Mary Roach describes the man as resembling a tooth. To give you an idea of her sense of humor. Van der Bilt spends his days working with comfort putty and experimenting with various aspects of oral physiology. He uses emotion-recognition software to ascertain whether people are happy, sad or ambivalent when they are chomping away at their meals. Did you know that our jaw muscles are the strongest muscles in our body?

Jonah zealots might be put off by the chapter Numero 8 “Big Gulp”, debunking the myths of fisherman surviving after being swallowed alive by whales. Roach deftly notes that it is not simply a matter of “spatial accommodations,” but physiology and chemistry that factors into equation. What about all those gastric juices swishing around inside our big beluga? She also delivers these delightful bon mots “would a man in a whale forestomach be crushed or merely tumbled? No one to my knowledge has measured the contraction strength of the sperm whale forestomach, but someone has measured gizzard squeeze.”

Who should pick up this book? Anybody who is interested in really delicious questions about our masticatory apparatus, anybody doing due diligence before getting their next colonoscopy, and, perhaps, anybody dying to know whether the eaten can eat back? Do you want to know if Elvis died of constipation or more about flatulence research? Roach doesn’t leave any gallstones unturned, this is a thoroughly researched, but highly accessible science book for those that wish Tina Fey or Stephen Colbert would give a diatribe or a treatise on gastroenterology.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Give Consider the Lobster Some Whatchamallit, Consideration

The Footnote King really delivers with his kickass essay collection, Consider The Lobster. He knocks John Updike on his duff (supposedly one of Wallace’s big heroes), he posits that Kafka was really a misunderstood humorist, and that tech crews are the real brains behind political campaigns. He goes out of his way to be a likable agitprop. He succeeds. And it doesn’t hurt that he is a master craftsman of the potent sentence. It’s not all about pretty prose, he loads his lines with philosophical polemics. This ain’t no beach read.

I love his essay “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart” because it’s so frustrating to be such a huge fan only to have a crappy book written about the ex-champ. His argument is really interesting and it reminds me of how disappointed George Plimpton was when he found out that Vladimir Nabokov was a big fat dud in person. Now, Wallace is fully aware that Tracy Austin, his childhood heroine, didn’t even pen her memoir, but rather had a ghostwriter do the dirty deed. Wallace himself admits that though he is a sucker for these sports stories, he usually tries to hide them under something “highbrow” when he’s at a bookstore’s checkout counter.

We all have curiosity about the rich and famous and sometimes we couple this up with a craving for something saucy, something that we know is really, nothing more than junkfood. Boy, does David Foster Wallace know how to pull us in. His opening essay, smartly titled “Big Red Son” is about Hollywood’s evil twin the Porn Industry. The characters are really characters is an understatement, but he doesn’t treat them in a pathetic way. You never get the feeling he is there, leering at the jugs of the porn stars. You can sense how important it is for him to see their humanity. He offers an objective tone, providing a fairly detailed analysis of the key players in the industry: camera men, production companies, journalists, and fans. Because he has such keen insight into what makes the various players tick— petty gripes they’ve had with each other and interests (beyond the screen) you believe his authorial voice.

What makes this collection so appealing is that it covers such a breadth of topics that you have to scratch your head and wonder how the hell this guy does it? You know he’s a meat-eater through and through, but he seems to, convincingly, plead the case for protecting the lobster from its vicious fate of being dumped into scalding hot pot. The lobster hangs on for dear life (by the claw) when he’s tossed in a pot. The lifelong loner is the type of animal (I use this word in its broadest sense) that hates, absolutely hates to be claw-to-claw with other crustaceans and that is how he spends his last moments before you point to him and choose him for your surf and turf dinner.

The sort of book review/romp on John Updike is classic, and it clues us into what D.F Wallace is all about. Wallace takes umbrage with the GMNs. The Great Male Narcissists. He includes Updike, Roth, and Mailer as the 3 horsemen of this enterprise. Wallace admits that he’s always been a big fat fan of Updike, but knows too that there’s a wee bit of misogyny going on between the covers. He’s not against the Updike obsession with penises and desire to roam free and be one’s own man, but that this is the overwhelming theme of pretty much everything the guy has ever written. Surely, a protagonist could be better-rounded. So maybe there’s a boatload of sentences that deserve lots of oohing and aahing, in the end, you want to smack some sense into his protagonists.

Love him, loath him. David Foster Wallace can write some stretchy sentences, but he's got lots of pop, and is always engaging.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Sneak Peek at My New Soccer Mystery Thriller Called Disposable Heroes

[photo by Robb Hanks]

I am offering a sneak preview of my brand new novel Disposable Heroes. This standalone short story was first published in issue 5 of Botticelli Magazine back in May. Disposable Heroes is something of Sports/Mystery/Thriller/Love Story. The main character Gil Reyes has mistakenly thought to be the Soccer Super Star, Rolo Peña who has gone missing. When Gil is offered a handsome bribe to pose as the kidnapped star, he doesn’t shy away. He needs the money, and is intrigued by the challenge. For the first time, he feels like he’s making something out of his crummy life. He thrives on the cheers and sometimes even believes he’s Mamajauana’s big hero. Curiosity drives him to find out what happened to the real Rolo so Gil begins to pursue the missing player’s trail, all the while honoring his commitment to the crooked officials. When he meets Rolo’s girlfriend, Millie, at a charming beach town, Gil knows he’s doomed. He falls in love with her, and his conscience goes into a tailspin. Then he meets the real Rolo Peña and fireworks spew.

The Inner Stitches

Welcome to Mamajuana City. Bask in the belching fumes, tiny smog monsters, as cars shoehorn through lanes and the constant, horn-blare suggest the sound of vuvuzela marking the rush hour. By Avenida Lijares, crusty-nailed men whisk off orange vests and cruddy helmets. Stray dogs prowl the rubble-ridden streets.

At the foothills, they make the finest furniture: solid pine dressers, bookcases, and wicker chairs. The hills behind are dotted with mountain people trying to stitch a better life. They weave scarves and blankets then return to their squalor in the hills. They’re happy.

In the open market, a young mother slumps on a stool, breastfeeding her baby while shoppers buy mangoes and frijolitos. Scattered on the floor is a rainbow of fruit and nuts. Chunky women weigh bags of grain and rice. Flies buzz in harmony. This brings us to the sun-baked boy, stitching soccer balls. He sits Buddha-still on the dirt with bloodshot eyes, zeroing in on his rubber meal ticket, whisking tight loops with his needle through the ball between his knees. He’s got surgical precision. His lithe fingers belong to a gifted pianist, but his raw knuckles are crooked, two nails spliced.

Shattered huts, trash, and the stench of decay stretch languorously. While the boy takes a moment to rub his eyes, some punk snatches the ball, tucks it underarm and blazes off. He heads toward the hills. The boy jumps up, stutters two steps and slips on a mango rind— #%@*#. He wipes his soiled hand on his shirt, leaving behind smudge. Then he grabs a few more strips of rubber and stitches anew.

Across the street, spindly boys kick a tattered ball back and forth. They bully each other, their hardened eyes and bruised cheeks have the deft touch of fine patina. Blur of dirt, and dreams so near, make them squint and scramble. They push, shove, kick and cajole. They carry on until a purple wound splits the ashen sky. Rain pelts the earth with unbridled malice.

Two intrepid boys stay put while the rest rush for cover. A frazzled mother, clutching a tin frying pan, shouts indignantly from her unguarded window. She seizes a dishrag and wipes wet bangs from her hair. Her boy refuses to come home.

“Chucho,” the small boy screams.

Chucho turns.

“Chucho,” the small one shouts again. The ragamuffins, who haven’t had the chance to escape, loiter by the street and watch the showdown about to unfold.

“I got you Manito,” Chucho says, bouncing on his chicken legs, future warrior.

“Spread out,” Manito says to his invisible teammates.

Chucho crackles his knuckles and Manito pumps his legs, waist level. Chucho leaps, bringing his knees, kangaroo-high to his chest. They spit, snort, and kick dirt.

“You shoot first,” Manito says.

“No, you go,” Chucho rebukes.

And they size each other up, two dripping boys fringed with pride. Manito guards the goal, lets Chucho take the first crack. Chucho kicks the ball a yard over the goal line, scrawled in marker blue on the wall. Then he nails the second one into the right corner. Manito dives, cannot get a finger on it and the boys, huddled underneath the tree, cheer. Chucho pumps his fist and Manito staggers, punch-drunk. Manito wipes his chin and rubs his heartache.

Manito blocks the next kick, but misses the fourth, right between the legs and the kids howl, shattering the goalkeeper’s dignity. His blinking eyes, crackling into myriad pieces. He slaps his own cheek. Chucho teases, dribbling the ball between his mud-crusty inseams. The crouching Manito stumbles on the slick street. Chucho races to the ball, takes a wicked roundhouse kick. Manito stops the ball with the filthy tip of his toe, stares in wonder. They laugh it off, slapping hands. They blow raspberries at each other. Then Manito switches positions with his pal. Chucho takes over as goalie. He bends down as if ready to embark in strenuous prayer then leaps up. He wipes his soiled cheeks and chin, pulls snot from his nose and flicks at his jittery pal. Manito flinches each time Chucho snaps a flake of snot even though it merely melts into his fingernails. Manito dances around until he’s good and ready. He has more meat on his calves and hamstrings than his chicken-legged chum. There’s a vicious cut below his right knee, the sloshing rainwater makes it look like fruit punch.

He peers over at the tree where his cowering compadres huddle, protected from the pour. Manito grits his teeth, flaunting his bottom canines, shark tips. He fires the first shot for a goal then follows it up with another. To celebrate, he does a whirly dance, nearly breaks his neck. When he finds his balance, he wipes his dripping wet hands on his waterlogged shirt and shakes the rain from his floppy hair. Manito scores a fourth in a row and Chucho slumps off, rubbing blotchy eyes, but Manito yells,
“Send it back.” He fires again. Five goals. Chucho slinks off, head hanging, and Manito blasts into the unguarded goal. The kids stare in disbelief and horror. Manito goes into a frenzied spree and makes an obscene, loopy dance each time he pummels the wall. The wet thud of the ball, caroming off the wall makes a tortured plea. The stitches sheer and air slowly fizzles out.

Manito keeps firing. With each shot that smites off the wall instead of smashing through the bricks, Manito seems heart-broken. He kicks with fury, hard enough to cleanse his soul of whatever sin his pint-sized body may’ve committed. His sharp eyes narrow in reckless ardor and his mouth shrinks into a slimy rictus, not a speck of joy. He winds himself tighter and tighter until he snaps his last stitch, tumbling over as a deflated ball.

The sky sighs with relief, but seems to keep drizzling for the hell of it.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Splitting A Muse from the Amused

Some of my happiest moments, on this so-called mudball, come from people watching. I get a slew of ideas for my writing this way, and it weans me off of my other favorite pastime, navel-gazing. As far as people watching goes, I’ve gotten pretty good at it. Usually, I pick one or two interesting subjects and study their expressions, their gestures, their quirks. Consider me the progeny of a one-night stand between Margaret Meade and a patrol cop.

One thing I notice now is that I seldom get scoped back. My fellow mudballers seem to be too smitten with their iPhones to really care if their being admired. We have to update our “friends” about every last excruciating bit of minutia that whisks into our lives. Which reminds me, would you mind liking this blog post when you’re done? Anyway, it wasn’t long ago when that all-encompassing killjoy (iPhone) wasn’t even an embryo. Those were the days.

Back in 2001, when I spent the Summer in Prague, I was in people watching heaven. Sure there were plenty of great sites to see and I consumed the Vltava, the Dancing House (think of a modern, glass-walled Leaning Tower of Pisa),

the myriad bookshops, Charles Bridge, and so on, but, more than anything, I loved to plant myself in a café and study my fellow diners and coffee-swiggers. This is what I was born to do. I guess that makes me an armchair anthropologist. I’ve always been fascinated by how tablemates choose to position themselves in relation to the other, whether they dab their lips with their napkin or sleeve, whether or not they crunch their ice cubes, or if they have a greater affinity for making air quotes or bowing air violins.

In the middle of my first week in Prague, after a rigorous morning of navel-gazing, I cast my gaze outward. I absorbed the guests in the café. There was a svelte young man in a canary yellow shirt who kept smoothing the crease in his collar with his thumb. He seemed to be making a G clef pattern or else he was tracing an ampersand. He carried on jubilantly, for what seemed like a full epoch. So enamored was I by his finger-tracing, I didn’t realize I looped into my own table-scribbling. Fortunately, I had the cap to my pen covered. It would’ve been a crime to ruin such an exquisite tabletop.

Anyway, when I grew tired of the collar-massager, I snooped around for another muse. I saw a few possibilities, but I wasn’t sold on them. That’s when I noticed somebody had taken me for their own amusement. A young lady in a black hat was sketching me. And to think, I hadn’t even shaved that morning. I don’t know why I was unsettled at first. Maybe it was because I didn’t know how long my sketcher had been keeping her eye on me or maybe it was because I had lost the upper hand. I no longer had a monopoly on the people watching in the café, and, on top of that, a sketcher trumped an idle-gazer like me.

I wanted to be a good sport so I tried not to disturb her sketchscape. I sat as still as possible, and that didn’t work out so hot. It was hard to appear natural because my awareness of the sketcher, sketching me, precluded my ordinarily limber mind from being its regular self. The burden of wanting to seem natural made me more tense. Inner awareness can be a doozy. I got so flustered my foot became bouncy and then the table started rocking. You know that bumper sticker that says Don’t come a Knockin if you see this van’s a Rockin? Poor table.

My good friend, the sketcher, was in no better shape. By that point, she looked miffed by all this shaking. I almost wanted to get up and say timeout, you know how a speed demon does after he’s swiped second base and he asks the ump for his momentary reprieve to dust off his uniform. I wanted permission to do this all over again. I’m burdened and blessed with empathy, as you can probably tell. Because I thought I was disturbing the sketcher, I in turn, got more jittery. What the hell does one do in a spot like that? Emily Post never wrote anything on the etiquette for a café model asking for a do-over. Not to my knowledge.

Things got dicey until I found a new focal point. I spotted an old man folding his napkin. He folded with such love and authority as if he’d been a waiter and was reliving his past shifts. He approached each napkin afresh, without a shred of disdain. He almost seemed to relish the ritual, foreplay with myriad cloth lovers. I became so enamored by his meticulous and mollifying nature that I stopped bouncing the table. When I looked up, some while later, the sketcher offered me a pleased grin, a toothy ciao for now, maybe I’ll catch you strolling along the Vltava sometime. I stayed put even though I wanted to go over and kiss her hand, take a peek at her little brown pad.

Monday, June 30, 2014

World Cup Fever

(Photo by Trey Ratcliff)

Have you caught it yet, #WorldCupFever? I’m all in. Each Cup, I get pulled in deeper. It probably has something to do with the fact that I ditched soccer for baseball as a kid. Believe me I’ve made up for the lost time. I don’t just get gaga every four years. I watch Copa Mundial, English Premier League, MLS, and friendlies at Citi Field when the Mets are out of town.

As much as I enjoy the matches themselves, and witnessing a #DempseyGoal or a #Messigoal, I am completely enamored with the fans and the pageantry. As a recovering anthropologist, I cannot get enough of the fans and the flavor they add to an already spicy game. I’m quite fortunate to live in Astoria Queens, which is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the universe. Spiciness off-the-charts. Flags of competing nations (past and present) can be found, dangling off car windshields, hookah bar awnings, stapled to takeout menus. Astoria is jackpot for the consummate Futbol fan, a movable feast for the feverish. You can catch a game in any number of bars, diners, pizza joints, chicken shacks, social clubs (if you’re member). I prefer the Studio Square Beer Garden while soaking in the Cup during the 30-day binge.

Wherever you go you’ll be elbow to cramped elbow with checkered-ball zealots. It’s contiguous, unbridled euphoria, sans Budweiser or Audi commercials. No trips to the john or you’ll lose your seat or standing post or, more likely, the cherished goal. Swill in the range of emotions, jouncing with the pitch as the plumber, the landscaper, and the mortgage banker crane their necks toward the zipping ball on the giant plasma screen. The neighborhood dentist, who has cancelled a day’s worth of root canals, gobbles beer nuts. The mailman almost leaps out of his wrinkle-free shirt as Tim Howard deflects the impossible. Who needs another L.L Bean catalog anyway? The laser beam focus on that screen is both marvelous and disconcerting something we 3rd generation gamers know oh so well. If you aren’t fortunate enough to have tickets to the extravaganza in Brazil then an over-sized beer garden will do. The writhing amplification from the speakers and the fans blowing into their vuvuzelas suggests tsunami or some other seismic treat.

I see the Cup as a way for grownups to relive their “Spider-man” or “The Lion King” dreams. And why not? There’s enough electric joy in the game to pry Buddhist monks away from their prayers, to allow warring nations to extend an olive branch for 90 minutes of bliss. As the striker lines up for his penalty kick, there’s that brief (inertia-stifling) moment as if Superman or Zeus has stopped the globe from spinning. Then the striker zips to the ball and, once the ball has been struck, your heart leaps.

On the surface, it’s about trophies. Yeah, it’s about pride, but really it’s about connecting. It’s about connecting to something deeper than wins and losses and bicycle-kick goals. The true pulse of WorldCupFever is reconnecting to one’s childhood, tying shared cultural experiences of kicking cans in the street on the way to school, blocking balled-up socks from whisking into your open locker. When you watch a game, myriad memories fuse together and you chase the ball of nostalgia. There’s electricity not because of the glowing lights, glinting on the grass or because you feel a glimmer of excitement being among the crowd, but because wherever you are there’s a crowd and another crowd and another crowd of crowds. The exponential charge dwarfs DC and rips into AC.

It’s more than a game. It’s about feeling that electric charge and reeling in the indescribable.