Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Forehand Folly

Summer is here and in an effort to do something other than sit on my butt watching TV all day, I've decided to start playing tennis again.  Ten years and several pounds ago I played the game three or four times a week, and I'd actually gotten pretty good.  Measuring your success at tennis is different than in other sports.  In bowling, for example, if you keep rolling the ball into the gutter and wind up with a score of, say, seventeen, there's no sugar-coating it.  You just plain suck.  If you're golfing and you spend five minutes whiffing at the golf ball before you finally manage to shank it fifty yards into the trees, it's time to take up a new hobby.  But in tennis, just as in sex, as long as you're with someone of the same basic skill level, things are going to be fine.  Problems of course arise when one partner is a whole lot better than the other.  When that happens, there's a really good chance you're going to get your balls smashed back into your chest.

So last week, I went to play tennis with three of my friends -- Matt, Martin, and Ray.  Those guys have been playing regularly for several years and are therefore much better than I am.  If we were the Beatles, for example, the three of them would be John, Paul and George while I would be Ringo.  Actually, that's giving me too much credit.  Ringo had his moments, and when hey-hey-hey came to yeah-yeah-yeah, he was a pretty respectable drummer.  I guess I'd be the guy who got kicked out of the Beatles right before they became famous because he didn't want to get the haircut or something.  On a related note, if you or someone you know has a tendency to let their analogies spin wildly out of control, contact the Convoluted Analogy Hotline at 1-800-COW-IS-TO-CALF.  Operators are standing by.

We normally play doubles, first of all because there's four of us and the math works out conveniently, and also because with two players on a side, there's less running around to do.  For my part, I pretty much stand in one place hitting the balls that come directly to me while my teammate Matt runs around like a maniac getting everything else.  He's younger and fitter than I am which, while not saying much, is definitely a factor in devising our game plan.  Besides, I'm a little rusty on basic tennis strategy, so I'm never quite sure where on the court I'm supposed to be.  A lot of the time, and I only wish I were exaggerating here, it looks like I'm playing dodgeball.

In formal tennis tournaments like Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, or the Greater Pawtucket Regional Tennis Classic, a team of linesmen (or lineswomen) position themselves at various locations around the perimeter of the court to determine if the players' shots are in or out of bounds.  If a ball hits "inside" the line or "on" the line, the ball is considered to be "in."  If a shot, for whatever reason, goes screaming into the stands and caroms off the skull of a guy returning to his seat with a handful of churros, the ball is called "out."  There is another umpire who sits in a tall chair at center court called, coincidentally enough, the "chair umpire."  His (or her) primary responsibility, as far as I can tell, is to have profanities screamed at him by John McEnroe.

In a casual match, such as the one Matt, Martin, Ray and I were engaging in last week, players make the call for their opponents' shots.  You'd think the temptation to cheat would be overwhelming, but in our case it turned out to be just the opposite.  We're all friends, of course, and I could tell that Martin and Ray were giving me the benefit of the doubt on a lot of their line calls.  It's almost as if they were thinking, You know, Chris hasn't played in a while and he sure ran a long way to get to the ball on that one.  What's a couple inches or so?  "IN!  NICE SHOT!"

Even so, Matt and I lost the first set 7-5.

Which brings us to the topic of keeping score.

The scoring system in tennis is so complicated and random that it makes a bowling scoresheet seem like child's play.  A child playing with a computer, perhaps, but still a child.  To make things as simple as possible -- remember this is relative -- we'll work backwards.

The winner of a tennis match is the first player (or doubles pair) to win three sets.  For women, it's best two out of three because women usually have better things to do than spend four or five hours chasing fuzzy yellow balls around.  Win the most sets, you win the match.  This is the easy part.

To win a set, you have to be the first to win six games (we'll talk about "games" in a minute), by a margin of two.   For example, a set cannot end by a score of six games to five.  When it gets to that point, you play another game and either the set is won 7-5, or it's tied at six and you play what's known as a "tiebreaker."  The tiebreaker is decided when one player (or team) reaches seven points, again by a margin of two.  Tiebreakers have been known to last several weeks and end with a score of 140-138.

Believe it or not, this is still the easy part.

To win a game, you have to win four points, again by the ever-present margin of two.  In most sports, like hockey and baseball for example, the scoring is linear.  One, two, three, four . . . you get the idea.  In tennis, however, you do not start with "zero."  You start with "love."  As sweet as that sounds, it doesn't make a lot of sense.  When you score your first point, you have 15.  Your second point takes you to 30.  So here's a quick quiz.  What do you have when you get your third point?

Did you say 45?


After your third point, you have 40.  This has never been explained to anyone without their head exploding.

When the game is tied at 40, this is called "deuce."  Then someone has to win two points in a row to win the game.  There's more to explain, like the definitions of "ad-in" and "ad-out" but it would just bore you into oblivion if that hasn't already happened.

Back to our doubles match.

After losing the first set, Matt and I rebounded and took the second one six games to four.  Halfway through the set, I started to feel like I was dragging a Steinway grand piano through wet cement but we persevered through my agony.

The highlight of the match was when one of my errant serves drilled Matt in the back of the head.  But he didn't even get mad.

This is because he knew there was no way I would've hit his head if I'd actually been aiming at it.


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Sunday, June 19, 2011

Blockbuster Brouhaha

Technologically speaking, the early 1990's were basically the dark ages.  The Internet had yet to be invented, music was stored on cassette tapes and compact discs, and Blu-Ray was something that Mrs. Charles only did on her husband's birthday.  One common form of entertainment way back then was something we called "renting a video."  There were special stores for it and everything. 

One Saturday evening, I drove a mile and a half to one such store, called "Blockbuster Video."  After browsing the action-adventure shelves for a few minutes, I decided on Die Hard 2: Die Harder.  I'd seen the original Bruce Willis masterpiece, of course, so I pretty much knew what to expect from the sequel.  I took the movie to the checkout counter, grabbed a couple bags of microwave popcorn (with butter) and left the store, eagerly anticipating the two hours of cinematic mayhem I was about to experience.

Back at home, I dumped the popped popcorn into a bowl, cracked open a Diet Dr. Pepper, and inserted Die Hard 2: Die Harder into my video cassette recorder, or as it was more commonly known, my VCR.  For younger readers, or those of you with some sort of memory disorder, VCRs were devices in which you could put a "tape" and then "record" a show from television.  You could also "play" a store-bought "movie" or pre-recorded "program" and sit on your couch watching it until your brain cells "imploded."  It was like TiVO but without the magic.  There were all sorts of problems with this technology, for example, once the tape got all twisted and stuck (usually the fourth or fifth time you played it) the movie was thereby converted into garbage.  Also, when your tape ended, you had to take about five minutes to rewind the damn thing before you could watch it again.

It was like living in the Stone Age.

So there I was, relaxing on my couch, watching the opening scene where Bruce Willis senses trouble at Dulles International Airport and ends up killing an innocent evil mercenary, when I suddenly got the feeling that I'd seen this movie before.  Not wanting to sit through the whole thing again,  I rewound the tape, put it back in its plastic case, and returned it to Blockbuster where I figured they'd let me exchange it for something I hadn't seen, like Predator.

Here's where the trouble starts and let me remind you once again, for the purposes of this story, you are on my side.

I took Die Hard 2: Die Harder to the counter and explained the situation to Lauren the assistant manager, who appeared to be about eleven years old.

"Hi, I just rented this movie, but stupid me, it turns out I've already seen it.  Is there any way I could exchange it for a different one?"

Lauren gave me a look similar to one she might have given me had I asked her to explain how the situation in Europe immediately after the fall of Germany led directly to the Cold War and if, in her opinion, the Western Allies should have acted to oppose Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.

"You want to do what?" she asked.

"I rented Die Hard 2: Die Harder, but when I started watching it, I realized I've seen it before.  Can I just exchange it for a different movie?"

"I'm sorry, that's against company policy.  I can't do that."

"You can't?  Why not?  What's the problem?"

"Well, how do I know you haven't already watched the video and are trying to get a second one free?"

"Okay.  Good question, Lauren, you make an excellent point.  But look.  Right here on my receipt it says I paid for the video at 6:44.  It is now 7:31.   According to the box for Die Hard 2: Die Harder -- see right there? --  the running time is 124 minutes.  I'll do the math for you, that's a little over two hours.   So I couldn't possibly have watched it by now."

"Maybe you just took the movie home and made a copy."

"I wouldn't know how to do that even if I wanted to."

"Well, I can't exchange it.  You'll just have to return that one and rent another movie."

Clearly, I was dealing with someone who was incapable of thinking beyond her bubble or making a customer-friendly decision.  I figured I'd try to walk her through a solution.

"Lauren, listen carefully.  All you have to do is scan this one back in, then let me choose another movie.  I'm sure there's a procedure for this kind of thing.  You must be able to do something."

"I'd need approval from the manager."

"Okay, great, let's get him out here."

"It's his day off.  I'm in charge.  And I'm telling you, you can't exchange movies."

"Fine, just give me a refund and I'll pay for a different one.  How about that?"

"Sorry, no refunds."

"You know, Lauren," I said, feeling the anger percolating in my guts.  "It's stupid-ass policies and mindless drones like you that will one day, about fifteen years from now, inspire some creative genius to come up with a system where, for a reasonable monthly fee, customers can order movies, have them mailed to their homes, keep them for as long as they like, and then simply send them back.  They'll call it Mailflix or something.  When that happens, Lauren, you watch how quickly Blockbuster and its 'let's-screw-over-the-customer' business philosophy fall right off the face of the earth."

"I'm going to have to ask you to lower your voice, sir, you're disturbing our customers."

That's it, Lauren, make me the bad guy.

"I'm a customer, dammit, and you're disturbing me!  Now are you going to let me exchange this movie, or am I going to write a letter to your corporate office and explain how completely uncooperative and rude you've been?"

"You know, sir, because you're causing a scene, I'm going to give you your money back and ask you to leave."

I'm sure that Lauren thought she was doing the right thing, customer service-wise, and figured that by giving me a refund she would ease my hostility and send me on my way.  But she couldn't have been more wrong.

"Oh, but wait, Lauren, I thought you said you couldn't give out refunds."

"I can if it will get you out of the store, you're disrupting our business."

"What the hell?!  You can't give me a refund if I'm being calm and reasonable, but you can give me a refund for being a loud, obnoxious jerk?  Don't you realize you're simply rewarding my bad behavior?  Doesn't really make me feel like cooperating, if you want to know the truth."

I walked over to the rack of Red Vines, Whoppers, and Raisinets.  "What happens if I pick up this candy display and chuck it through the plate glass window?" I asked, eyes ablaze.  "Do I get a thousand shares of Blockbuster stock?"

"Sir, here's your money back.  Please leave now before I call the police."

Not wanting to rehash this entire fiasco with the local authorities, I took my money and headed for the door.

"Good night, sir.  Have a nice evening."

I replied with the great Bruce Willis line from Die Hard 2: Die Harder.

"Yippee-ki-yay, Motherfucker."

Wait a minute.

"Yippee-ki-yay, Motherfucker" was from the original Die Hard.  The one where he's trying to rescue people from a tall building . . . with the bad guy named Hans Gruber . . . I thought that was . . .

Well, shit.  Turns out I haven't seen Die Hard 2: Die Harder after all.

I'll have to put it on my Netflix list.


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Monday, June 13, 2011

Alfundo Anxiety

Any psychologist worth his salt will tell you that the only way to conquer your fears is to face them head-on.  Also, he'll tell you that the phrase "worth his salt" is out-dated and stupid.  While the idea of facing one's fears sounds like reasonable advice, and works well for the fear of hamsters or the fear of flannel,  it probably falls short in more terrifying situations.  If you had, for example, an innate fear of being pummeled to death by former heavyweight champ Mike Tyson, would you really want to face up to it?  Sure, you could walk up to Iron Mike and say, "Hey, Champ, the Lullaby League called, they want their voice back.  And by the way, nice tattoo."  That would indeed be a fine example of facing your fear, but then you'd be facing reconstructive facial surgery.  At best.

When I was young, I was afraid of lots of things.  Some were relatively minor, like clowns and the flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz.  They were petrifying, yes, but it's not like Bozo was going to follow me to school.  That's mostly because Mike the Whip would've beaten the seltzer out of him, but also because he's a fictional TV character.  I got over my childhood phobias by the time I was about eight.  Well, that's not entirely true.  I watched Stephen King's It on cable a few months ago and it freaked me out all over again.

My fear of fire lasted quite a bit longer.  Like, permanently.  To this day, I've never struck a match or flicked a Bic.  On camping trips, I have to find a three-foot stick to roast marshmallows.  If I have to light the fireplace, which is to say "if I can't find Theresa," I use one of those trigger-operated lighters that look like miniature shotguns.  I'm not sure where this fear came from, but it's here to stay.  On the plus side, though, I'm never going to be a suspect in an arson case.  So there's that.

One fear that I did manage to take on and conquer was my fear of roller coasters.  When I was a kid, my parents would take me and my brothers to Dorney Park in eastern Pennsylvania.  I don't know if it still exists (I suppose I could Google it), but back in the 70's it was wonderful, even though their mascot was a creepy clown named Alfundo.  I loved almost everything about Dorney Park; the Skeeball games, bumper cars, miniature golf.  Everything except the gigantic wooden roller coaster which was called "One Way Ticket to Hell" or something like that.  Every year, my dad would try to bribe me into riding that thing, to no avail.  Promises of cotton candy and soft-serve ice cream didn't stand a chance against bone-chilling mortal fear.

It wasn't until I was about 11 that I finally rode my first roller coaster.  Space Mountain, Walt Disney World, 1976.  At that time, Space Mountain had only been in existence for one year, and many rumors swirled regarding its safety.  It was supposedly so fast that people were losing their glasses, false teeth, wallets, and overpriced lunches.  I wasn't exactly eager to put myself through that, hell, it had only been about a year since I'd gathered up the nerve to go on the Haunted Mansion.  But with some encouragement from my father, I agreed to give Space Mountain a try.

We stood in line for over an hour.  During this time, the dark recesses of my mind spewed out images of a roller coaster pushing Mach 2, whipping around the track flinging passengers to the Happiest Death on Earth.  Dad didn't help matters, either.  If you've ever been on Space Mountain, you know that there are all sorts of space objects projected in the darkness.  Comets, asteroids that look like giant chocolate chip cookies, meteors.  Well, my dad pointed to one of the stars zipping across the ceiling and said, "See that?  That's one of the cars!"  I could just feel the seven-dollar hot dog looking for the escape hatch.

We finally boarded the ride, and for about thirty seconds, I was petrified.  But then I started to enjoy it.  I enjoyed it a lot.  We got back in line and rode it again.  Just like that, I was hooked.

I rode my first "loop" coaster, "Lightning Loops" at Six Flags' Great Adventure, on my eighth grade class trip.  After that, I became somewhat of a roller coaster aficionado.  Magic Mountain's "X" is probably my favorite, but "California Screamin'" at Disney's California Adventure is a fantastic ride, too. 

But over the past couple years, things have started to change again.  Don't get me wrong, I still love riding roller coasters, but I have to pick and choose.  It seems that certain rides, particularly those that swing side to side like "Batman" at Magic Mountain make me want to do the ol' technicolor yawn.  Even the friggin' Ferris Wheel at California Adventure turned me a vague greenish color.

That just getting me getting older, though.  It's not fear.

Fear would be a roller coaster soaring through rings of fire, with Alfundo riding next to me.  And maybe a flying monkey or two working the controls.


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Monday, June 6, 2011

Word Wackiness

A famous writer once said, "When you can't think of anything to write about, write about not being able to think about anything to write about."

Okay, I just made that up.  But see?  I'm already four sentences into a piece about absolutely nothing, so perhaps there's some merit to that fictional philosophy after all.

Which doesn't change the fact that I've got nothing whatsoever to write about.

That's not entirely true.  I do have another Mike the Whip story percolating, the one about the time we dared him to steal a six-pack from the local Stop-N-Shop.  It's pretty funny, actually.  We were about ten years old and bored, so we walked to the corner store to buy a couple Slurpees.  Cola for me, cherry for Mike and Robbie.  The store had a big Budweiser display, and that's when Robbie decided to test Mike's nerve.  Anyway, I'll get to that story in the next week or so, but it's going to take a bit of time to work up.  So for now you get to plod your way through this garbage, if you're still reading up to this point.

I guess we could talk about a few of my favorite words.  Like festooned, for example, I love that one.  The basic definition is "decorated with," as in, "By the time Mrs. Jones finished preparing  for her son Jimmy's birthday party, their living room was festooned with streamers, balloons, and a giant octopus pinata."  That's your basic usage of "festooned," but if we contemplate the situation outside the cubical cardboard container for a moment, we can have even more fun.

For instance, "Corporal Wilson threw himself on the live grenade, saving five members of his platoon; however, the inside of the foxhole was then festooned with Corporal Wilson's innards."

Another great word is fisticuffs.  If you've been hanging around here for awhile, you've undoubtedly come across that one a few times.  It's such a classy and articulate way to say "ass-kicking" or "beating the shit out of each other."  Check out the difference.

When Otis and Frank realized there was only one donut left, Frank grabbed Otis by the throat and strangled him within an inch of his life.  And then he grabbed the cruller.

Or . . .

When Otis and Frank realized there was only one donut left, they settled the matter with fisticuffs.

And it sounds cool, too.  Fisty-cuffs.  Like a more intense pair of handcuffs.

And last but not least, the most versatile and all-encompassing derogatory word of all time, "douchebag."  This one's interesting on the surface because it's almost never used in the literal sense.  I'm not even sure there is such a thing as a douche bag.  Ladies, help us out here.

But as a personal attack, there is simply no match for the incisive, humiliating "douchebag," or if you're from New Jersey, "ya fuckin' douchebag."  Again we'll illustrate this through comparison.

"I can't believe Herman just blew off his date with Jenny.  What an inconsiderate jerk."

"I can't believe Herman just blew off his date with Jenny.  What a fuckin' douchebag."

So much more accurate and vivid.

Given what we've learned today, I guess I'll have to come up with the coolest sentence of all time.  Here goes:

Johnny and Phil, after calling each other all sorts of names like "shit-brained douchebag" and "good for nothing swamp sucker," engaged in a spirited display of fisticuffs at which point their bedroom wall became festooned with their blood, mucus, and spittle.

You don't come across linguistic calisthenics like THAT every day, now, do you?


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