Hoop Dreams

I’ve never been good at sports, and my interest in professional sports has always been inconsistent, at best. When I was a child, I followed the Oakland As and spent many a summer’s day trying to catch Reggie Jackson’s home run balls, but I spent most of my time out in right field devouring Colossal Dogs and peanuts while my brother studied the game, kept score, and remembered the starting line-up. I was even less interested in playing sports, participating in only three uninspiring years of Little League before hanging up my cleats. I put a great amount of time and energy into fantasizing about being a great athlete.

One of my two favorite pastimes was playing tennis against the garage door. The garage was no match for my powerful forehand and dead-spin backhand, but my career came to a crashing halt when I served a blistering foul into the lamp mounted above the garage door, shattering the glass, the bulb and my dreams of being a great garage-door tennis player. The other, less destructive waste of time was playing basketball alone in that same driveway. I knew that if I played against my brother, my next-door neighbor, the golden boy down the street or just about anyone not on crutches, I’d get creamed. Sure, I might learn something, but that wouldn’t be any fun. It’s funny how faux-good you can become at something when there’s no one there to test how really bad you are. I could spin the ball on my finger, transfer it to other fingers and dribble the ball between my legs. (I had to stop to perform this magical feat, but who cares?) I also could transfer the ball from one hand to the other around my back real fast-like.

While many of these tricks amounted to zip when it came to playing against real people, it didn’t matter; I was playing an imaginary team, and the imaginary crowd marveled at my ballhandling. The imaginary opponents shuddered at my wizardry, too. The coolest thing I could do was shooting with one hand. Forget about whether it was wise or not; since there was no one around to shut my game down, I was the king of the (driveway) court. Ultimately, someone like my brother or a neighborhood kid would come over and mess up my game, but there came a time when I marveled more than just my imaginary players.

The first time I applied these tricks in front of someone besides my thoroughly intimated imaginary competitors was during a high school P.E. class. When we split into groups for basketball, weights, tag football and slaughterball, I chose basketball, and by pure luck (and it would never happen again), the most clumsy, awkward schleps in the school signed up with me. While the future Marcus Allens and Ryne Sandbergs were playing flag football and lifting weights, I was with the guys who would probably grow up to become computer programmers and lifetime HO train enthusiasts still living with their mothers. I knew something was amiss when we picked teams for the first time; I was immediately perceived to be the franchise player and was snatched up first. This has never happened before or since. I was usually the handicap, the guy a team gets stuck with because they got first-pick and chose the super-jock.

There I was among a bunch of guys who allowed spittle to collect unchecked on the corners of their mouths and hiked their gym shorts up hopelessly way too high. I probably should have taken this time to be humble and help out these guys who were worse off than me, but I didn’t. I became the terror of the blacktop for that one semester, the Michael Jordan of these slobbering schleps. Actually, I secretly called myself Rick Barry. I remember watching moments of Golden State Warrior games where Rick Barry was the star. I recall the commentator repeat over and over again, “Barry, top of the key, two points!” There wasn’t much of a “key” to be at the top of on the blacktop, but since I couldn’t shoot too far beyond the free-throw line without looking like a girl, it didn’t matter.

Also, since my “muscle memory” at what was roughly the free-throw line was fairly decent, thanks to all the times I was imaginarily fouled during those imaginary games on the home driveway court, I stunned the schleps with those fancy one-handed shots from that distance, which might as well have been half-court for all they were concerned. The great thing about that semester on the blacktop was how these guys figured I was too good to mess with. Nobody tried to double-team me or slap that silly one-handed shot away. I was given all the room I needed; it was a turkey shoot.

If I was the Rick Barry among the schleps when it came to hoops, there was another semester when I was the Archimedes among the remedial math clan. After getting transferred out of my freshman pre-algebra class I remember walking down the hall towards my new math class, transfer papers in hand. I could hear what sounded like chanting ahead of me. As I drew nearer I figured out what they were chanting. I stopped to ensure I read the room number correctly on the transfer papers. They were chanting the multiplication tables! “Three times three equals nine; three times four equals twelve…” When I opened the door a football coach was at the head of the class leading the chant. He didn’t break the cadence, only waved me over, took my papers, and pointed to a chair in the back of the room. When I sat down I received the final blow of humiliation: the kid to my right was from our Special Education program. By the time nine times nine equals eighty-one I recognized a half-dozen more kids from Special Ed. So here’s the equation:

{ x = has a need to review six-grade math + can be taught by a football coach + is attended by >= 7 “special” students }

We can deduce that value x /= a room full of German rocket scientists.

It turned out I had a knack for remedial math. Never mind that I should have had this stuff down in elementary school – I was the wunderkind of the class. When I handed my tests in long before anyone else the other kids would look down at their half-completed tests and back up at me like I was some kind of egghead. I was a genius among my fellow classmates. When that semester ended I returned to pre-algebra where I struggled with the concept of letters in math equations and squeaked by with a C or a C minus. I never looked back after that. I graduated from high school and earned a BA in a university without taking another math class. Needless to say, I struggle when it comes to determining tips and sales tax.

I often think of those blacktop days, but I cannot translate how much I liked to play hoops back then into watching the sport today. My wife likes watching basketball, especially during March Madness and the NBA Playoffs. I’m so removed from the drama that all I can think of while watching parts of the games is how nice or dumb some of the uniforms look and why that Steve Nash guy doesn’t do something with that hair. I also like to try to find a player who doesn’t have a visible tattoo – kind of like a dynamic “Where’s Waldo.” As you can tell, I’m pretty emotionally detached from watching the actual game.

I have attended a few Sacramento Kings games, though, and I think some of the guys I know at work would have killed for the seats my wife bought for our friend Mad Dog and me some years ago. It was a post-season game, and we were about 10 to 15 rows from courtside on one of the corners near the aisle. While the fans were going ape all around me, I sat and wondered how cynical the presentation was. Keep in mind, I spent summers as a kid watching major league baseball, albeit not very attentively. What struck me is how the whole presentation was set up as if for people with A.D.D.; when the ball wasn’t in play, the cheerleaders were jumping around or that big diamond vision thingy was putting on a not-so-entertaining show. When the game was over, my ears were ringing, like the first time I saw the Ramones at the Warfield, but with none of the satisfaction.

Occasionally, I look in on the “Over Forty” basketball league at my club. These guys are twice my size, in very good shape and talk street hoops lingo like “cutting teeth” (ouch!). Sometimes after they have left and before the volleyball net goes up for the next group, I get a chance to dribble down memory lane. There are usually only a few guys on the court, so I can shoot a couple of hoops alone, but it’s not quite the same. That semester on the blacktop is long gone, and so is my muscle memory; now I need to be almost under the net to make a shot. Occasionally a fellow club member will invite me to play a quick game. I should do it. What would it hurt? I might learn something. I guess I just like to dream.

My Forbidden Love for the Fedora

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingI’m thinking about buying a fedora. I’ve always loved the style, even though you rarely see anybody wearing them these days. I don’t think the fedora ever really returned to fashion from the 1940’s, but, maybe, I could start a trend. The entry for Fedora in Wikipedia.com gives a list of some fifty famous usages, but only a few represent real people in recent times.

Seriously, though, who am I kidding? I don’t really think I can start a trend, and, even if I begin wearing a fedora, what will I wear with it? I’m not much of a coat and tie man, and I think a man wearing fedora with a tie-less shirt just looks like a guy who any moment is going to break out into a tap dance or a guy trying to cover his baldness.

I tried for years to cover my growing widow’s peaks, moved my bangs around, firing three hairdressers who couldn’t pull a bottle of Rogaine out of the future or rub some magic tonic on my barren peaks and prescribe a daily dose of Jimboy’s El Gordos and Taquitos for hair care maintenance or at least tell me that widow’s peaks were hot! No, they just said ”Oh well, that’s the way it goes,” and attempted to cover my shiny shame wedges. After firing my last hairdresser (“firing” really means just finding a different hairdresser, but “firing” sounds more cathartic), I went home, wet my hair down, and combed my bangs straight back – exposing my receding hairline. The balding jokes stopped – the shame was removed. So you see, when I see my bald/balding brothers donning hats of one sort of another, I want to tell them it’s okay to be bald. Of course, some may be more concerned about preserving their body heat from the cold and protecting their scalp from the sun.

But I digress; the fact is I would have to re-invent myself if I did this. Now, I don’t have a problem with other people doing this kind of a thing – it’s almost required for a celebrity to do it; as a society, we are far too jaded to follow a movie star or pop singer who looks the same, acts the same for years on end – he or she becomes boring, but little old me would feel too self-conscious to show up at work one day wearing a tie, suspenders, a sport coat, and a fedora cocked to one side of my big melon. I guess you’ve probably figured out by now this post is not about announcing my “new look,” but simply a process I am going through to talk myself out of wearing one of these things.

The first time I can remember seeing a fedora was when my father introduced me to the man who would become my favorite celluloid hero, Humphrey Bogart. The man had style, even though he clearly wasn’t GQ material. He was a man’s man – the only guy I ever saw slap a woman, making it look not misogynistic, but macho, and oddly sexy.

I remember spending hours looking in the mirror, wearing any hat that faintly resembled a fedora, with a cigarette butt that I had plucked from one of the ash trays around the house. I would move my upper lip over my teeth, and, repeating ”Here’s looking at you, kid” and “Angel, you’re taking the fall.” I think there were times I didn’t want to be like Bogey, I wanted to be Bogey. If I would have continued in the family tradition of smoking, it wouldn’t have been my mother, father, or sister’s fault – it would be the cool cigarette moves of Sam Spade and “Casablanca’s” Rick Blaine. Thankfully, that didn’t come to pass. Also, if I had based my smoking on Bogey characters, I think my actions would net only horselaughs. I cringe to imagine myself, leaning against the bar, cigarette dangling between my fingers, replying to a bored waitress’ offer to sample TGI, Friday’s new, improved Jalapeno Poppers: “I stick my neck out for no one.”

I don’t have Bogey’s hard look. Before I met my wife and got a huge boost of self-confidence, I used to equate myself with Woody Allen’s character in the movie “Play It Again, Sam” a man who is coached in the ways of love by the ghost of Humphrey Bogart. I took comfort in one of the last lines that Allen’s character says to his hero: “True, you’re not too tall and kind of ugly, but I’m short enough and ugly enough to succeed on my own.” I suppose that goes for me too, with or without a fedora.

WWJS

But those things which proceed out of the mouth come
from the heart, and they defile a man. – Matthew 15:18


About a year ago I realized I needed to cut out all the cussing I was doing around the guys at work. I didn’t cuss that much to begin with, but enough to make anyone question what kind of Christian I was. I also started calling some of my fellow brothers in Christ on their dirty speech. They have thanked me on convicting them and have started watching their mouth – at least around me.The use of profanity has become an epidemic – I cannot walk three blocks in downtown Sacramento without hearing the “F” or “S” word at least once (I am excluding the street people’s Tourette Syndrome-ranting, of course). What is also alarming is that profanity is no longer used chiefly in anger – it has become a part of our everyday speech.

I remember in college enjoying George Carlin’s The Seven Words You Can’t Say on TV. In the examples Carlin used the forbidden words were usually dispensed in anger or frustration. While there were exceptions, like the kind of dirty jokes Carlin and other “blue comedians” cracked, this was pretty much true. Now, these words are commonplace – well on there way to becoming part of the American-English vernacular.
A critical turning point for me in the development of my own potty mouth was when I took Weight Training in my High School Freshmen year. I found it strange (not to mention liberating) that students could freely cuss in front of the coach as long as it was in the proper context like not being about to bench press 185 lbs or only being able to do 22 instead of 25 chin ups. “Ah s%&#, coach, I could do 25 over the summer.” “That’s okay, Peterson, you’ll have plenty of time to make that goal this fall.” This was the first time my peers and I got to freely cuss in the open around adults as well as bathe our ears in such forbidden words. Sure, there were those moments when Mom got really mad, but that was a queue to duck and cover, and don’t ever get caught smiling at Mom when she cussed!

The cussing reached a fever pitch during the fall, winter, and spring physical fitness tests when the coaches would get out their clipboards and mark down your progress. On the free weights a dirty word replaced the panic verb “Spot!” You had to listen for it, though; it was usually grunted through the guy’s grinding teeth. I didn’t like the free weights. I always envisioned one of those mean seniors smiling at me, upside down, as my arms began to fail and I awaited the inevitable and horrifying experience of chocking to death on a free-weight bar while the satanic senior snickered.

At the weight machine – where everyone would gather around the person the coach was testing – it was a prerequisite to spit out a manly curse when you failed to make the goal you or the coach had expected. Cussing was so pervasive that I used to think the coaches were checking a “Profanity” box along with writing down the weight value: “Sorry Williams, you improved by 20 lbs., but you didn’t cuss; give me fifty push-ups.”

One fellow freshman slid under the bench press after moving the key to 90 lbs. and jerked the bar to success; 100 lbs.: success; 110 lbs: he violently cocked his head to the right, his leg kicked, his teeth grit, his veins bulged, then, just as you could hear the weights begin to lift off the stack, he let the bar go in resignation. The weights crashing back on the stack — rattling the whole machine. Frustrated, the Freshman exhaled “Shoot, dang-it!” The weight room exploded in laughter. “Shoot, dang-it.” It was too late to take it back or exchange it with the standard boilerplate scatological expletive.

He became “Shoot, dang-it” to all the guys for the rest of high school and I never knew him well enough to find out his real name. Four years later during commencement, I remember hearing someone shout “Shoot, dang it!” when the graduate was called across the stage to receive his diploma. I remember laughing with a few guys around me – some of them the very same punks who, in junior high, harassed me and then for the next four years simply acted as if I didn’t exist. It’s strange how cruelty can bring estranged young men together if only for the time it takes someone to walk across a stage. In a better world there would be no junior high or high school caste system; in a better world we would have pulled ole “Shoot, dang-it” up from that weight machine bench, patted him on the back and said “You’ll get it next time, brother.”

As cruel as childhood is I find it strange that P.E. coaches didn’t help the situation – I mean, how could professional educators allow cussing in their classes? Then again, this wasn’t English or Algebra; these were the same guys who created such games as slaughter ball and smear-the-queer.

Thirty years later and now my youngest son is in high school and by the looks of his school-sponsored blog prep profanity has gone from the weight room to the Internet. It frustrates me that he cannot rise above his non-Christian friends’ and school system’s environment and keep his language clean. I’ll admit, if I was a Christian in my high school days it would have been a struggle.

I don’t think the acronyms many of them, as well as adults, use in the Internet and emails, are any better: OMG, OMFG, SOB, AFU, FUBAR, etc.; the intent behind them is as if they were spelled out. I will refer him to Matthew 15:18 mentioned above, or maybe Colossians 3:8:

But now you yourselves are to put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth.

I’ll also remind him that even when Jesus got really mad and drove out the money changers from the temple (John 2:14-16, et al) he didn’t even say “shoot, dang-it.”

The Office Workout: Stairwell Therapy

There’s a guy I know who works in my building who has cut caffeine out of his diet, resorting to green tea as an alternative to coffee which he used to drink quite frequently. While I find green tea as appealing of an alternative to coffee as chicken noodle soup to steak (only preferring these if I am really ill), I suppose since he is in excellent physical shape there’s not much else he can do to improve on his Greek-god like body. When my doctor regards my pathetic tabernacle and finds out that I drink coffee with my stable of Blizzards, Dilly Bars, and Buster Bars, he tells me to lay off the ice cream then leaves the examining room with a whoosh of his lab coat; nothing about cutting down on cafe. So you see caffeine is the least of my worries. Anyway, I don’t really drink that much – less than three cups a day. It is the mass consumption of Dairy Queen Products, not to mention, bread, rice, potatoes, and second helpings of all the above and more that I need to declare a moratorium on.

But there’s change in the air, my dear two readers! A couple of weeks ago my old friend Monique came down to the dungeon where I work and asked if I would like to walk to the seventh floor with her. “Why, are the elevators out?” She looked at me the way my wife does when I’ve reloaded too many times at the Indian casino buffet. “Oh, you want me to exercise with you; got it!” I said figuring out her glare. I didn’t really get a chance to think over the offer when she ducked in the stairwell and motioned me in – like she was going to dish some delicious dirt.

Leading the way, I started yakking about how our old manager “used to take these stairs everywhere – never using the elevator unless he was accompanying the director and that it was probably bad news for who ever they were going to visit and definitely bad news for our old manag,” “Be quiet!,” she said cutting me off. “Preserve your energy,” she gasped half-way between the basement and the first floor. It was too late my weight, my atrophied legs, and my jacking jaw did me in already. By the time we made it to Floor Seven I could feel my pulse through my eyeballs and my legs were quaking like an extended arm balancing a cane in the palm of the hand. When we walked all the way down the stairs Monique said we should do this once a day. I don’t know what evil spirit was in me at the time, but before I could scream “Are you out of your flippin’ mind?” a voice from somewhere in my throbbing melon said “Sure Monique, let’s do it.”

The next morning I was so sore I could barely stand up. I felt I needed a day or two to, as I told my wife “let the muscles relax and grow.” My wife, the nurse, did not side with me, “No, you need to continue.” We argued, but it was no use. My wife has the license and the big medical terms – all I have is the pleading lingo that has never worked with her.

After two weeks of this routine my legs stopped being sore, but I was still winded every time we did the walk. Besides these walks I also started taking the stairs whenever when I move about the building from floor to floor. This also included scheduled trips like going to an 8:30 meeting on the Sixth Floor every morning. When I walk into these meetings I can’t help but wonder if anyone can tell I am attempting to catch my breath and, at the same time, attempting to cover it up. I don’t know how dangerous this is – trying to breath regularly when you want to gasp. When scaling the six floor to the morning meeting a seemingly insignificant item as a planner becomes a boat anchor after Floor Four and by the time I reach my destination, before I open the stairwell door stagger out into the lobby, I am thankful that I never write in the damn thing – ink is just more weight.

I also, have scheduled trips every Monday, Wednesday mornings and Friday afternoons. On these trips I carry out-of-date two-pound data collectors and extra batteries to stations on the fifth and second floors. Not one trip to the fifth floor passes where I don’t have the urge to test the drop specifications of these “bricks-on-sticks.”

As an exercising tool you can’t make the stairwell stepping experience sexy. “It’s like the StairMaster, but more dangerous!” See what I mean. I suppose you could dress down, put a towel around your neck and work out in the stairwell during lunch, but who would want to smell B.O. in a confined place like a staircase?

Every once in a while we’ll run into someone who appears to be doing the same thing we are – they aren’t carrying anything and have that deep breathing in concert with a look of purpose on their faces as if this ugly, puke-yellow staircase is where they want to be, instead of the best cardio workout-while-you-work routine. Then there are the annoying guys who are just moving from one floor down to the next because it’s faster than the elevators. These are the guys who like to gallop down the stairs, staying airborne for too long at times, as if the laws of physics don’t apply to them. I swing wide on the landings to let them pass, but the gallop turns into a steady pace as I proceed down the next traverse only for them to start up with that gallop again. I feel a little like Ichabod Crane, afraid to turn around and face my pursuer who is in such a hurry, but refuses to overtake me.

The stairwell is a place where you find out just what kind of people these fellow stairwell travelers are. I suppose you could say the same thing about elevator sojourners. One of my more sophomoric, not to mention dangerous, elevator tricks when I worked as an evening proof reader in a near-vacant thirteen-floor building was to attempt to pry open the elevator doors when the car was in full motion. Boom! The elevator would perform an emergency stop, making the passengers feel their weight displace with a light, but significant thud. I stopped performing this little squealer when the car stopped between floors and stuck there. I was trying to impress the two female proofers I was with at the time. We were stuck there for three hours where I learned a lot about those elevator travelers.

Another trick I learned – this one from my high school sociology teacher – is that people will always balance out the spaces between fellow elevator travelers as more people leave a full elevator on a long trip. I would not move – occasionally pining someone to a corner of the cab as it continued its move up (or down) the empty out. My victim would finally get out in a huff before their appointed stop or would ask if I would move over.

I don’t know of any tricks for the stairwell and I don’t think I want to learn any. It has become a necessary evil until I get in shape; that and trying to lay off the Dilly Bars, but there’s no way I’m going to exchange coffee for green tea!

Fair Trade Coffee and My Dirty Little Secret


It’s about a quarter to eight on a Thursday morning and I am sitting alone in Temple, a coffee house about a block from where I work. I’ve been to this place only a couple times before and though the location, atmosphere, and coffee is good, I have no really pressing reason to patronize this place for my daily sacrament of java. The fact is there are two other places I can get my coffee that are next door to my office and another that is directly on the way to work – no detour required.

Ambience is not that important since I usually get the coffee to go, but this place is very comfortable – it used to be a bookstore about 15 years ago and hasn’t lost the feeling one gets in an old bookstore — like you don’t want to leave. I can’t help but feel a little envious though – there’s always a large group of friends or coworkers occupying two or three pulled-together tables nearly every morning, talking about work or play – I’m always alone with nothing to keep me company but this tablet or whatever magazine or book I may have in my bag at the time.

There’s another reason I patronize this specific coffee house: they sell only fair trade coffee. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one to buy exclusively from farmer’s markets, co-ops, and boycott products that are owned by companies that have been bought out by belligerent corporations; I don’t have the energy to keep that up. The fact is many nights of the week you’ll find me at the local Starbucks ordering lattes for my family. There – I said it, I feel a lot better now. No longer will I have to wonder if one of my old radical left-wing college buddies will recognize me when I am ordering a Frappuccino.

Since the Seattle-based chain started planting stores in locations near my house I’ve been choosing Starbucks nearly three out of every four times I get coffee in the evenings. Some of the guys at work complain that Starbucks is running independent coffee houses, like this one I’m sitting in, out of business. Though I like individuality and uniqueness of places like Temple, I also enjoy the uniformity, convenience, not to mention the wide selection of espresso drinks Starbucks offers.

Behind the warm tones, selves of shiny travel mugs, and tasteful jazz, folk, and rock music CD racks of the corporate coffee houses of North America lies the dirty back-end of the coffee business most middle-class Americans would rather not know about: the Free-Trade Zones. For that matter they probably wouldn’t want to know that the problem is pervasive – covering hundreds of goods and services North Americans buy everyday. The shirt on your back could have very well been made in some Guatemalan sweat shop. Most of us know about the Kathy Lee Gifford incident and, at times, feel a little self-righteous pointing our finger at the annoying “celebrity” and Wal-Mart icon, but it is pretty hard for just about anyone in North America to escape supporting, in one way or another, the institution of Free-Trade Zones.

The alternative to free trade – at least as far as coffee, tea, and chocolate goes – is fair trade, where producers receive a fair price for their product and work under safer conditions. Also, buyers and producers trade under direct long-term relationships – there’s no middle men to cut into the producers’ profit.

Fair trade coffees are not that easy to find and cost about two dollars more a bag. The fact is fair-trade coffee only represents one to two percent of the specialty coffee market. So if brands like Cloudforest, Peace, and Thanksgiving coffees don’t ring a bell you’re not alone. After a lot of bad press, Starbucks finally came out with a line of fair trade coffees.

Starbucks’ free trade coffees have identical packaging to the fair trade coffees, but without the Fair-Trade Certification seal; in other words: you have to look beyond the text about how Starbucks is giving back to the growers yada, yada, yada and find the seal to get the fair trade coffee. Also, as of this post, the few fair trade coffees they have are in whole-bean form only and good luck trying to get a latte or macchiato using fair trade coffee.

This fair trade verses free trade business hasn’t soured my appetite for Starbucks – only sobered me on the politics of coffee and just about everything else I buy, for that matter. In fact, since I discovered this little coffee house on the way to work I have discovered that nearly half of the independent coffee houses I visit either at work or during off hours use fair trade coffees.

It’s another Thursday morning and I am sitting alone, as usual; this time where the old book store’s windowed display case used to be. I feel better now that I drink fair trade coffee and almost want to stand up, like a model, beckoning pedestrians to come in and try this fair trade coffee. The humiliation I would surely feel would be my penance for my post-meridian excursions into corporate coffee country.

Cracking a Smile

I was walking to work the other day when I ran into one of the women who work in my building. “Smile, it can’t be all that bad.” I give her a perfunctory grin to make her happy. I thought “Man, do I look that serious? I’m not in a bad mood – I haven’t looked at my desk yet.” I run into another fellow employee about fifty feet up the mall who tells me one of her funny one-liners as we pass each other. This time I crack a genuine smile. Then, for the first time ever, for reasons I still don’t know, I attempt to hold that expression. I hold it for a quarter of a mile, passing other fellow workers who smile back at me. I smile all the way into my office building. At the elevator a woman who rarely addresses me smiles and says hello. She addresses me by name and asks how I am doing.

“Hmm, maybe this smiling thing is something I should work on,” I say to myself. But by this time my facial muscles begin to ache, you know, like your legs do on the day after the first ski trip of the season. I have always been told I look too serious. In family pictures there are two faces of me: the candid ones where I look like I belong in a Bergman film and the staged ones where my mom, her arms akimbo, says “Smile, this is [Insert name of any festive occasion].”

Most of the people who know me think I’m a nice guy; maybe a little too self-absorbed at times, but not enough to warrant them thinking that I’m nursing a hemorrhoid or plotting their bloody demise. Then again, I can remember these guys telling people I am a “nice guy” – as if my friends don’t think I did a good enough job conveying that message directly.

I once interviewed for a job I just knew I was going to get. Looking back on the experience now and considering the other applicants, I am not so sure I had this one cinched up. Still, the guy who got the job – someone who worked under me – said he thought he got position because he’s an “easy-going guy.” I should have read into that, but I was too pissed about not getting the position and humiliated that someone under me was chosen. I didn’t smile for weeks. If someone would have told me back then “Smile, it can’t be all that bad” I would have broken a window!

I’ve heard from outside sources (the inside source being my mother) that smiling is good for you – both muscularly and emotionally. There have been scholarly studies done on this. Can you imagine getting a Masters in Smiling? There is even such a thing as “Laughter Yoga.” (Don’t laugh, here’s the URL: http://www.laughteryoga.org/.) Laughter Yoga is supposed to help people with their self-esteem, stress, depression, urges to kill someone, et al by making them laugh and smile. I can just see myself in organic cotton sweats, assuming a yoga pose on my mat surrounded by a bunch of old sour pusses, and requesting to the Master Laugher to put in my Dave Chappell DVD: “Hey fast-forward to the skit about the crack whore. Damn that’s a riot!”

On those rare occasions that I smile or laugh I can also feel a little foolish. I was eating orange chicken at the local Panda Express and reading an article in The New Yorker by David Sedaris. Try attempting to suppress laughter while reading and eating orange chicken and fried rice – it can get messy. I don’t know how many people saw me. I must have looked kind of crazy with the orange sauce dribbling down my chin and the tears rolling down my cheeks. My wife tells me I have a great laugh, if not a tad too loud at times; a rather eccentric friend tells me he hates viewing comedies with me because my cackle drowns-out the actors’ following lines. He says he prefers to watch comedies like “Airplane!,” “Young Frankenstein,” and Marx Brothers films in absolute silence. He says he laughs hours later when he is at home.

I think I’m going to work on my smile. Currently, I’m wearing a stress-induced mask like the local undertaker. It will take some practice to crack the ice. Perhaps I’ll rip some Dave Chappell, Chris Rock, and vintage Firesign Theatre on my MP3 player and walk around the office, earbuds in place, laughing my rear end off.

Tango and Altoids

I’m standing in a circle in one of the studios normally used for aerobic or step exercises. With my tongue I jockey an Altoid around my mouth – the last of many I’ve been popping since I got off work and made my way to the health club. I look around the circle, checking out my fellow classmates – mostly couples.

In the middle of the circle is Rebecca, a tall, dark-haired woman with a black beaded cocktail dress and three-inch stiletto heels. Her partner, Aaron, is also in black with black suede dancing shoes with Cuban heels – cool.

This is the first night of Argentine Tango lessons sponsored by the athletic club I belong to. I love Argentine Tango, but my self-consciousness makes dancing – even with my wife of 18 years – a mixed bag of emotions. I continue because I believe I will ultimately overcome these feelings and be able to fully appreciate this wonderful dance and the absolute hypnotic music we dance to.

After doing some warm-up exercises Rebecca tells us to find a partner. Immediately, all the women who came with men clutch on to their partners as if they had just been told the floor may drop out from under them. I can’t help but take this personal – like all these women checked me out when I walked in the studio and ran to their partners spitting “Please don’t make me dance with the short, bald guy!” I go counterclockwise past all the white knuckled women until I find a wallflower – usually an older woman who was told tango lessons would be much more fun than bingo.

Dancing is a strange activity. Its roots have a lot to do with the mating process, which makes the experience with a stranger all the more awkward. Argentine Tango pushes this awkwardness far beyond what I felt when I took waltz lessons from an ex-Arthur Murray teacher at work. When the few of us loners find partners and introduce ourselves, Rebecca and Aaron illustrate just how awkward this is going to be – they show us the close embrace: Rebecca leans into Aaron almost as if she tripped and crashed into Aaron’s chest; her face so close to his neck she could be whispering “Hey Aaron, check out the short guy who swallowed a whole tin of Altoids. Someone must have tipped him off about his breath.” They back off and show us the much more conservative “salon embrace.” Okay, that makes me feel a little better.

I check to see if the Altoids did their job by breathing in sharply through the mouth. Ooh, that almost hurts! My wife tells me I have bad breath when I get home from work, but when I go from work to the club and ultimately get real close to a stranger in a salon embrace I don’t have a bottle of mouthwash or a bagel to tame the acids raging in my empty stomach.

Tonight my wife is not with me – she has a college class, but even if she was present Rebecca suggests that switching partners is good so couples don’t end up “complementing each others’ mistakes.” My wife supports Rebecca’s suggestion so I’m out of luck whether she’s here or not.

My first partner is a woman who must be in her late 50’s/early 60’s and can’t be over five feet tall. This may not seem too bad if you know that I am only 5’6, but it is. Tango is all about intrusions – the leader placing his feet deep inside of the follower’s space. This lady’s little legs can’t create the space required to execute the proper steps — at least for a rookie like me. We trip and almost fall. She gets the idea that this is her fault, and while it really isn’t I’m frustrated enough to give the impression that it is. I look at all the previously white knuckled, 5’6ish women, now laughing and feeling good that they are with their dates and not with a stranger like me.

After we stumble through an otherwise wonderful tango by Astor Piazzolla it is time for the leaders (men) to move to the next follower (women). After I travel over half the entire distance of the circle, past all the white knuckled women I find Julie, a young woman at least five inches taller than me.

Tango is not meant for this kind of height difference – at least not where the woman would easily win the tip off in a basketball game against the man. When the music begins I realize I can’t even see over her shoulder to direct us around other couples; navigation must be done by dead reckoning. At least I don’t have to worry about stepping on her feet.

Time to change up; I finish the circle only to find I am back with the five foot lady. I finish the lesson with my two partners, check out of the club, and go to my car where I put in my Tango Nuevo CD and crank it up. Perhaps next week I can talk my wife into skipping class and going dancing with me, and then I’ll be the one with the white knuckles.