Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Buttoning Down

The first semester of school has been ending, and we’ve all been getting an average of 3.5 hours of sleep per night. The school bookstore has been making a killing selling iced lattes and diet Cokes the last couple of weeks. But I’m betting you already know what it’s like to be cramming how to graph the minimum area of a circle or finding the mass percentage of inert materials in Maalox, an antacid. (It’s 15.1%, for anyone who cares.) So I will not go down that glorious tangent.

Instead, I’m going to talk about Buttondowns. Yes, capital “B,” not the type of shirt you wear to church or temple. It’s the name of a men’s a cappella choral group at my school. A selective men’s a cappella group, as the head of the music department likes to brand it. I auditioned for it this fall, and by the grace of God, I made it in as a bass.

Buttondowns is a well-known group in my school, and in the realm of established Pingry clubs, it’s one of the greats. The faculty advisor has a Ph.D. from Juilliard, and he is one of the most talented musicians I’ve ever met. He can sit down to play something he’s never laid eyes on before, and you would think he’d spent the last month practicing. I remember walking into my audition, handing him my music, and feeling like I was singing for the man who wrote the song. He’s also a funny, caring advisor and teacher to the boys of the group, and there is many a story, perhaps apocryphal, about him making a call or two to land one of his former singers a spot on one of the esteemed Ivy League a capella clubs. My mom has repeatedly said that he “is a blessing to the school”.

One of the fun parts of being a Buttondown is the annual 15-minute Buttondowns movie that we write, act, and produce. We spend months filming this thing, and, while the seniors lead the effort, it’s beyond awesome to have the privilege of skipping class and essentially doing whatever we want around the school under the aegis of "filming" for forty-five minutes a day throughout the fall. (See link for movie below.) The movie was played in front of the school while the student body was seated in the main auditorium, and it directly preceded our fall concert, known as the “Buttondowns Assembly”. The movie gets everybody involved, and cast members include the assistant headmaster, who sells the Buttondowns to MTV, the director of the Upper School taking bribes, and two of the senior boys “hooking up” on camera. Shooting the short film is a several-month long process, which culminates in the whole school watching it together during assembly. We get away with off-the-wall, otherwise-forbidden stuff because if nothing else, we know how to sing in Latin with a straight face.

And the school actually seems to like us. To give a bit of reference, I’m on the school newspaper and the water polo team. Throughout the water polo season, most of the school either doesn’t realize or doesn’t care that we exist, and the water polo scoreboard hasn’t worked right in decades, if ever. As for the paper, a handful of teachers, Pingry visitors, and alumni may read it, but it’s not clear that any students do much with their copies except crumple them into balls and throw them at each other. The Buttondowns have a different rep. Everyone knows who we are, and most are happy to see us coming.

The group sings a wide variety of songs, but, basically, we have two types of music in the repertoire. One, which I call the Church List, is comprised of hymns and Christian holiday songs. Occasionally, a more serious secular one is thrown in here, but generally, this list features songs like, “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “Jubilate Deo,” and other Latin songs so painful to sing and memorize that I feel no need to mention them here (mostly because I don’t remember what they are).

The other set list we have I call the Fun List. This list contains a wider range of songs, like “Everybody Talks ” by Neon Trees, “Some Nights” by fun., and “I Knew You Were Trouble” by Taylor Swift. These are the songs that the Pingry kids like to hear.

Something I’m sure my Jewish readers and family members will note is the decidedly Christian influence on the group. It’s not that we choose to sing Bible-related songs, but most of our out-of-school performances take place in churches because our music director has a part time job at one, and obviously the type of music to bring to a church is the music that is sung in church. Thus brings up the questions, “Why not do more secular extra-curricular performances?” “Why not sing at temples? Or mosques?” Hell if I know. We do sometimes sing at other schools, where we dabble in both set lists, but generally it’s one or the other.

I will acknowledge that it’s taken a while for the former bar mitzvah kid in me to get comfortable singing about Christ The Lord and whatnot. But what I’ve concluded is that if you’re going to be a performer, you’ve got to get comfortable performing a wide range of pieces in a wide range of venues, from street corners and churches to recording studios and Carnegie Hall.

We may spend half our waking hours singing in churches, but our musical director is a great guy who rarely says “no” to our ideas and lets us have fun. He is a great civilizing influence on us because he forces us to be well-behaved young men who dress in coat and tie and sing in church, but he also lets us relax and screw around during rehearsals, where our inner teenage ids can let loose. And by letting us go to both extremes, our musical director elicits the best from us. 

That said, there are times when we end up being the opposite of buttoned-down. There is a female equivalent to the Buttondowns, called the Balladeers. They practice hard and give great performances and are always serious and composed. You can tell their rehearsals never get out of hand; they always know their parts, and their assigned soloists never forget the lyrics to the final chorus (not that this has, ahem, ever happened to us). Our director lets us be teenage guys, meaning we writhe, charm, perch on audience members' seats, occasionally make inappropiate eye contact, and, when prompted, sing our hearts out. Sometimes we go too far, but we always put on a good show.

To put it simply, we are a band of talented misfits, the older of whom watch the younger ones’ backs. This fall, I got to catch up with one senior who I met in my French class last year. The senior, whom I will call Jason, is a leader of the Buttondowns and a very talented guy. Before I joined the crew, he probably just thought of me as the noisy kid in French. Now, when he sees me talking to a girl, he’ll yell, “Fromm’s mackin!” which doesn’t exactly warm my heart, but he’s a good guy see if I ever need to ask a question so stupid I’m embarrassed to bring it anyone outside my friend group. Would my relationship with him have kept up if I weren’t a Buttondown? Doubtful.

To be honest, I can’t do the whole B-downs experience justice with just a keyboard and a blank page. This is a group of guys that knows how to perform and have fun while doing it. And sometimes we even make money.

Every year, the Buttondowns and Balladeers organize the “Serenades,” a period of two or three weeks around Valentine’s Day where we let the Pingry community determine the details of our performances, with love songs as the theme. Before the Serenades period begins, we hand out flyers to the school with a list of songs on it, but we also take special requests. Anybody in the school can select a song, choose which student, teacher or staff member we sing that song to, and then decide where we sing the piece. The best part: We get to call this a fundraiser. We charge $5 per performance, and the money goes towards a very worthy cause: The Buttondowns Foundation, which funds our end-of-year party and other miscellaneous expenses. This year, my friend Kennan wanted the Buttondowns to sing “Scream” by Usher to his girlfriend while she sat through AP US History. We were happy to skip part of our fifth period classes and hike over to the history wing for a quick show. The AP US History teacher wasn’t thrilled that a group of guys could invade his classroom and start belting out in song to some random student, but my friend’s girlfriend loved it. And news of the Serenades gets around; most of the time, someone whips out an iPhone and films the performance before uploading it to Facebook. We get a lot of likes.

In one recent scenario, a student decided to order the head of the Math department a Serenade while he was in the middle of a BC Calculus lecture. After watching us enter, the teacher smacked his head and groaned, “I wanted the girls! Not you people.”

We sang to him anyway. And then Jason rubbed his tummy.


Sunday, August 26, 2012

Shalom, Bro


Damn, has it been long. I have no excuse for bailing on Frommedy for six months. Okay, I do have a bunch of excuses: Between end-of-year work stress, some overseas travel, and a few days in Israeli army training camp (more on that later), I lost the rhythm of writing this thing on a biweekly basis.

First, I want to thank you. By you, I mean whoever’s reading this text, right at this moment. Thanks for giving this blog a second try after its half-year disappearance into Internet cyberspace.

A lot of stuff has happened (both in my little world and the big World) since I last posted mid-March. I completed a set of incredibly rigorous biology projects that had me explaining tumor suppressor genes to my little brother. I muscled through the end-of-school-year period, in all its über-social, party-filled, shambling glory. I went to Israel for five weeks with no parents present (yes, Jewish mothers, you read that correctly). I spent a week at squash camp with the whole squash gang (Obi, the godly instructor, my old crush, etc.). Now, I sit here at literally the same desk in central California that, almost a year ago, I posted the post entitled “Wrestling with Wrestling”. Critical experts (i.e. my brother) have said that that was my “best” post, so, along with some prodding from my artsy 13-year old cousin and whatever loyalty I have from you out there, I decided to start writing for Frommedy again.

The most striking part of my summer was the Israel trip. Part of me wants to tell you that the trip in its entirety was spectacular. And it was, kind of. The organization of it was a little off, but it rocked for entirely different reasons. The people on the trip made it awesome. I went as part of a larger organized trip through NFTY (the North American Federation of Temple Youth) that consisted of several hundred kids, but my individual “group” was composed of people who I’ve known forever. Some background would do well here.

For six of the past seven summers, I’ve attended a month-long Jewish sleep-away camp in the Poconos. Now, put all of your preconceived notions about Jewish sleep-away camp aside, or sleep-away camps at all, for that matter. The camp is called Camp Harlam. Harlam is, with no better way to say it, “a place like no other”. My annual month there has highlighted every summer I can remember. And, while I could put 10,000 words down explaining just why Harlam is so awesome, I will keep it brief. It’s an extraordinary place. I’ve been hanging out with the same eight or nine guys every summer since I was entering 3rd grade. And, when you spend that much time with the same people, you become brothers.

So, anyways, Group 9 in Israel was the “Harlam Group,” i.e. all the kids from Harlam were thrown into one group. And, boy, it kicked ass. Never in my life have I seen such an intense fraternity of teenage boys who share such an unspoken, shameless brotherhood of love with each other. And, yes, it might sound like I just described an ongoing gay orgy. Forgive me if I failed to accurately describe it. But still, weeks after returning from the trip, I remain in awe from the kind of bromance and support that I saw among the guys there. Year in and year out at camp, the girls have changed, the counselors have changed, and the lifestyles have changed, but at the core of the hearts of nine or ten guys that I hope I never lose contact with, there remains an internal respect for each of the other brethren. It’s like a work of art. I actually tear up when I remember that many of those guys won’t be returning for CIT summer next July, and saying good-bye to them at the airport after our return from Israel was heart wrenching. Cole, Bendy, Max, I love you guys. Aaron, Dan, Jeremy, and all the rest…the memories I’ve shared with you guys will be floating around my subconscious for the rest of my life. (And guys, if you’re reading this, I hope you don’t mind that I used your real names. Please don’t sue me.)

So, that said, you can imagine the kind of fun we had roaming around Israel together for over a month. We were The Core guys (as we kind of nicknamed ourselves), but something that really surprised me was that there was no exclusivity to it. While The Core remained intact, all the guys were more than willing to welcome many new faces into the wolf pack. In fact, a guy who we all met minutes before our flight to Tel Aviv became one of my best friends over the summer, and many more filtered their way into the system. And, in addition to the Core guys, there was an accompanying group of girls who were more than encouraging of the whole “Core” mentality. Elsewhere in the world of teenagers, where leaning on a guy’s lap or writing personal notes to each other might be considered “so gay” or “just weird”, these girls were almost excited by the fact that the guys were as open with each other as they were. And, of course, it didn’t hurt that much of the female side of the wolf pack was both incredibly friendly and attractive. Now, the people weren’t all as witty and super-motivated as the people from my ultra-competitive private school are, but, then again, love like this could never be found there.

There were a million examples of said brotherly love, and I’m trying to recall some of the most memorable ones. One that immediately comes to mind is when I got semi-seriously sick with about ten days left in the trip. One morning, while we were traversing the Jewish quarter of an Israeli suburb, I started feeling nauseous and dehydrated. Suddenly, what felt like a tsunami of tiredness hit me. I crawled into my bed the second we returned to our youth hostel, and woke up five hours later with a searing headache and a shitty feeling in my stomach. One of my counselors dragged me out of my room to see the Hebrew-speaking nurse, who did her best to inform me that I was in no shape to attend our evening activity. I had a 103 degree fever, was suffering from “exercise-induced dehydration,” and managed to collapse on the floor before I was halfway out of her room.

Five minutes later, there was a posse of guys coming to see me. Their visits weren’t blunt and hasty; they really did want to make sure that I was okay. My roomies brought me every meal I missed without being asked, and my Machon (Hebrew for counselor) actually had to throw my friends out after they crept into my room after rooms-in. Their dogged visits really kept my spirits up at a time when I felt groggier than a starving infant. The truly sucky part was that I had to miss Yad Vashem, the famous museum dedicated to the remembrance of the Holocaust and the infamous Nazi genocide. Though I’d already been there with my family, I wanted to experience it as a teenager among teenagers. Still, the nightly visits from the rest of the pack and the news that they’d “found a girl for me” made me feel better (a pretty, Spanish Jew named Sasha, if you care). But they wouldn’t disclose her identity, lest I die unfulfilled.

What I remember of the conversation:

“Yo, Frommy! How you doin’ buddy?”
“Pretty terrible.”
“Aw, you been shittin’ your brains out all day?” my friend asks sweetly.
“You know it, cutie.”
“Oh, my little teddy bear! You’re not dying, are you?”.
“Only on the inside.”
“Good, good. We wouldn’t want Sash—uh, I mean Mystery Girl, to be disappointed, now would we?” this guy asks, holding my cheek like I’m four.
“Haha, oh well, I don’t know. How hot is Mystery Girl?”
“Probably a seven.”
“Bullshit! She’s a perfect ten. Only the best for Mr. Frommypoo over here!”

Laughter all around.

An innocent conversation on paper, but after spending eight and a half hours alone in a hotel room with no one with whom to share thoughts but a Hebrew bible from the closet drawer, it felt good to be social again.

And it’s good to be back.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Frommatics

Hey, y’all. It’s been a long time since I last posted, and I’m glad you’re still with me. I’ve been loaded down with work over the last few weeks, but now that school has taken a two-week hiatus, I present to you the first segment of the Frommedy 2012 political take.

It’s time to write about the election. I’m not Anderson Cooper or Bill O’Reilly, so I can’t give you up-to-the-minute, behind-the-scenes expert analysis, but I can give you a novel perspective on the upcoming Presidential Nominations/Election. Think of me as Fox News with a teenage mouth and some experience in stand-up comedy.

Let’s start with Newt Gingrich. I’ll just put it out there: I don’t like him. He comes across as more of a comical, let’s-do-things-the-old-way fellow than a legitimate presidential nominee. He left his first two wives in what can almost be described as sitcom-like betrayal, and just take one look at his third wife—platinum blonde, chic, and thin—and you get the feeling that she may be at risk of pulling a pre-1995 Cindy McCain and develop a crazy addiction. But even if I (or 98% of America) could get over his calamity of a personal life, the crap that comes out of Gingrich’s mouth still makes him unelectable. This guy scares me more than any candidate I’ve seen in my short few years as a politics follower, because he’s so full of s***. I cannot fathom the man who calls himself “the most serious, systematic revolutionary of modern times” as a person who is capable of sitting in the Oval Office and running our country, and yet there are a legitimate number of people who are fighting to put him in the White House. A man who had eighty-four ethics charges filed against him in his term as Speaker of the House should not be running for what is arguably the most powerful job in the world.  But I actually hope he pulls out the Republican Nomination, so Barack Obama can crush him in a landslide come general election time. 

I don’t think Michelle Bachmann or Herman Cain were ever running legitimate candidacies, and I still don’t think Rick Santorum has any idea that he’s never and will never be seriously considered a runner in this race to the White House. I only mention these people because each one has or had a semi-legit following, and so I try to understand what it is about each candidate that people find appealing. With those guys, I really have no idea. During an interview, Santorum once compared same-sex marriage to pedophilia and bestiality. Come on, man. It’s 2012. Are you deliberately trying to lose the gay vote? And, Listen, Rick, if you were really competitive at this point, Obama would be going after you with political anti-ads. He’s not. He’s saving his firepower for…

I think Romney is a good guy. I wouldn’t vote for him, but he’s bright, he appears to be honest, and he seems to have America’s best intentions at heart. He looks like he genuinely supports the average Joe, and isn’t looking to exploit the presidency for the power that it offers. And he likes meatloaf cakes for his birthday! How could you not like a guy who wants nothing more than meatloaf cakes for his birthday? Anyway, our country has, of late, essentially become a business with a huge pile of debts, and it’s going to take a pretty talented businessman to dig us out of this $15 trillion hole. With a background in the financial sector, Romney could possibly do a decent job of starting that uphill climb. Now, the guy is worth roughly $100 million, but he doesn’t seem to be digging too deep into his own pockets in order to outspend and outcampaign the other candidates. On some level, I do agree with common knowledge: he’s quite flippy-floppy about some of the major issues (like general global policy and gay marriage), and I think he changes his opinion more to please the masses than he does because his opinion actually changes. Despite that, I think it’s safe to say that he’s all but the surefire frontrunner to win the Republican Nomination, which means it’s Mitt vs. Barack come November. I can’t wait to watch the presidential drama unfold.

I know that Obama is in no way the end-all be-all two-term president. He’ll never be Lincoln, FDR, or JFK because he doesn’t have the firepower or ballsiness to do the dirty work and accomplish the progress that those men did. He’s not going to end slavery, solve a horrific economy, or promote civil rights. However, I think that in early 2008, our country was in the worst condition we’ve seen it since the Great Depression. Obama was handed an incredibly crappy situation when he took office for his first term, and we can’t expect him to turn us into the perfect country in four years. Hell, look at us: up until a year ago, we didn’t allow gay soldiers in our armed forces, and right now we’ve got a candidate running for president who wants to get rid of literally every penny of foreign aid that we hand out. (I’ll let you figure out which one it is, but hint: his first name is Ron and his last name isn’t Reagan.) We have ambassadors and “defense” leaders who don’t know the first thing about the countries they’re supposed to be protecting and supporting, and a pathetic amount of dispute within our legislative branch.

Here’s a fun fact: our country’s unofficial approval rating of Congress is lower right now than it has EVER been. You could put a group of America’s brightest teenagers inside the House of Representatives building and they’d probably make more progress than the elected “officials” who are sitting in that building as we speak. I don’t understand how our country has such a potential for greatness and yet we continuously shoot ourselves in the foot by hiring and electing people to lead us who would probably be better suited as McDonald’s cashiers. Perhaps, this is because the people with the most potential in this country don’t enter politics.

But enough ranting and raging. I think that Obama is the best option for President at this point. As the incumbent, he knows what he’s doing to a certain extent, and, more than anything, there doesn’t seem to be a Republican who shows any promise of more progress than Obama has accomplished. And, despite a shifty economy and all the hype about the Republican nomination, I think that this country’s voters will agree with me in November. But it’ll be a fun wrestling match to watch either way.

So, Romney vs. Obama? Sounds like Clash of the Titans: Political Edition.



P.S. Stay tuned for more political Frommalysis.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Squashed

There’s a new sport breeding in my household. It’s not flashy, it’s not macho, and it doesn’t have a Super Bowl at the end of its season, but it does exist.

It’s squash.

No, not the vegetable. There’s a sport called squash. I started playing a couple weeks ago, and I’ve been playing tons since.

I will admit that at times, it almost feels like something I have to apologize about. When I used to tell people that I wrestle, their first reaction would often be amazement feigned with mock fear or vice versa. But with squash? Not so much. I usually get a laugh and then, “No, really, what do you play?” Or, something along the lines of “Rich kid alert!” or “Do you have to wear a tie for that?”

How I got into squash is actually a pretty interesting story, considering that it’s not exactly common for people to jump from one of the most rugged, instinct-driven sports in the world to a more highbrow and civilized game.

Speaking of highbrow, the people who go to my school aren’t exactly inner-city kids. There are a few kids on scholarship and receiving financial aid, but the atmosphere is still one of pressure and privilege, which makes it no surprise that the school harbors so many squash players. That’s not to say that every racket-wielding kid has a trust fund, but I’ve noticed that a lot of them finish their private lessons and then walk outside into the plush, heated embrace of their parents’ Lexus SUVs and BMWs.

Anyways, apparently the eventual goal of intensely playing squash is to improve your status in “the rankings”. It’s not like tennis or college basketball where there are a set number of spots for a coveted standing, i.e. there’s no such thing as being “ranked” or “unranked”. Everybody’s got a number. What you’re trying to do is improve yours. All it takes to get one is to play in a few tournaments and then complete a simple test, neither of which I’ve done yet. When I do, I’m sure I’ll be #7532 or something, since I have no competitive history and I’m so new to squash. But there are two kids in my grade who rank in the top five in the country (yes, you read that right), so it kind of feels like the pressure is on to get better ASAP.

But the other side of knowing two incredibly talented, well-connected squash kids is that you start off with a huge advantage. You know the best brands to buy, the right coaches to use, and the great places to play at. I am lucky enough to be friendly with both of them, and one of them, named Julia, connected me to this wonderful coach who she’s been using for several years. This guy gives something like sixteen hour-long lessons a day, and doesn’t appear to be human. But he’s an incredible mentor and teacher (and is also a former national champion) so your chances of getting a lesson with him are comparable to getting a date with one of the Kardashian sisters.

Enter connection: here. Julia and I aren’t all that close, but whatever. She hooked me up with a god.

His name is Obadi, called “Obi” (pronounced like “Kobe”, as in Kobe Bryant) for short. Obi is a charming, Nigerian former national champion squash player, and, keeping in mind that I’ve only had three lessons with him, is one of the most lovable people I have ever met. He’s smart and critical in a gentle and attentive way. It’s impossible to get a lesson with him unless you know somebody (i.e. Julia, who sang his praises before I even met the guy), and he mentioned that she almost forced him to take me over several other clients who wanted the 6:00 to 7:00 PM time slot. In fact, the only reason that that spot was even open is because Julia hurt her back a few weeks ago and can’t play again until the summer. She and Obi are very close, and that definitely helped me get the nod.

Anyways, playing with him feels similar to a dream. It’s almost like a combination squash lesson-therapy session. His coaching somehow also helps coach you through your life problems, and when you walk out of playing with him for an hour, you feel ready to tackle the world’s hardest geometry proof or make a run at the most un-gettable female in your high school (a feeling that quickly fades once you actually sit down to attempt the task). Those lessons literally fly by, and I sometimes look up at the clock after we’re done and wonder if it’s been magnetized by his Nigerian awesomeness in an effort to fool me out of my full hour. Not to mention that he’s already made me ten times better at squash.

But, while Obi is amazing, my squash skills could still use some improvement. I’m taking another, twice-weekly clinic that’s held at a much more well known club than the one my Nigerian friend plays at, and its popularity attracts a lot of beginners, which makes this class perfect for me. The only problem is that it’s primarily comprised of small children.

I’m not a large guy by any means, but when your peers are all under the age of ten, you become known as the “Big Kid”. I’m not kidding. Kids have actually started to address me as that, and several of my little brother’s friends have come up to me, introduced themselves, and then crushed me in less time than it takes you to say ”I feel bad for that guy”. But the instructor tries to work a little reverse-psychology on the less-talented people. He puts the best kids in court A, the decent kids in court C, and the terrible kids in court B, so he has you thinking that your skills are at least passable. It took me a few weeks to figure all this out.

Anyways, after many lost games and tribulations, I finally won a match, albeit against a pudgy 4th-grade girl named Sophie.

Did I mention that, after beating her by a measly two points, she quickly performed the obligatory handshake and then proceeded to storm out of the court and demand that her mother feed her a fudge cupcake?

I know what you’re thinking, and yes, I do feel special.

I just wonder how Sophie would do on the wrestling mat.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Family Guy

“Dangerous people don’t break into your home. They live in it,” says Greg House on a recent episode of his eponymous show “House”. I wouldn’t call the guy a role model, but he does his job well (albeit in an unorthodox and illegal way), and hearing his cynical beats of wisdom can reassure you that you’re not the only crazy one out there.

We just came back from winter break, and during the longer vacations between the many months of school, my family usually takes a trip somewhere. Our trips are almost always fun. You’re on vacation, you’re relaxing, and you’re seeing the sights. And a little time with the family is never a bad thing.

But I emphasize a little time with family. Don’t get me wrong. I love my mom, my dad, and my little brother. We’re a family, and as far as I know, there aren’t any Ponzi-scheme/rat-infestation/children-living-in-the-attic situations currently going on. Nothing to call DYFS over.

Our trip this December was to California. We flew into LAX and planned to visit LA for a few days and then amble our way up the coast to San Francisco, where we’d meet my uncle, my aunt, and their toddler. On paper it was a recipe for success. And while we weren’t driving, it was.

People underestimate how far apart the two biggest cities in California are. According to MapQuest, it’s a little over 380 miles and about six hours. But we wanted to stretch it out as we drove next to the ocean, because what healthier thing to do on vacation than sit in a tiny hybrid car with limited air conditioning and try to entertain yourself without pissing off the other three members of your family? Over the course of three days, we were in that car for over ten hours, slowly pooling our neuroses together in a race to see which one would vomit/scream/cry/have a nervous breakdown first.

I’m only kidding. But seriously, I don’t advise that any family spend more than a couple hours cooped up in a car without taking frequent let’s-admit-that-we’re-sick-of-each-other-and-take-a-quick-Starbucks-breather pit stops. At least for families like mine. It’s no fun being at each other’s throats, and the little one always ends up getting picked on the most. That’s just how it works. Of course, the big one doesn’t get his way 100% of the time, either. For example, 25 minutes into our trip, my little brother “got” carsick and decided that the only way to fix it was to wolf down a diet Coke that was twice the size of a full-grown watermelon and then demand to ride shotgun. I will say this; he’s got the acting genes.

The trip itself was a blast. In Los Angeles, we kicked off the vacation with what has become a tradition in my family: a three-hour late start on our first day. Go, fam. We were in LA, center of the entertainment industry and home to some of the most fascinating and messed-up people in the world. If you want to see neurotic, go read up on celebrity news. Or get married for 72 days, or name your child after a color on the American flag. (Blue Ivory Carter, daughter of Jay-Z and Beyoncé, you’ve accomplished more in your first week of existence—being featured on a Billboard’s Top 10 Songs list—than most of the 2012 Republican presidential nominees have in their lives.)

On our first day, we took a private tour of Warner Brothers Studios (and saw the Friends’ set and a couple of cars from the Batman movies, as well as the stage where they shoot “The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien,” “Pretty Little Liars,” and “2 Broke Girls”), and shamelessly continued to do touristy stuff for the duration of our stay in the City of Angels. We visited the Walk of Fame, Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, Kodak Theatre, and the Getty. Call me aspirational, but my favorite part was Beverly Hills. Walking down Rodeo Drive, eating at the stellar restaurants, knowing I was in the midst of more than a few super-connected people; it all seemed so lovely and dreamlike. My favorite part might’ve been driving through the famous Hollywood Hills and staring mesmerized at the absurdly beautiful and expensive homes that house the top agents, actors, and comedians who dominate the industry that I someday hope to work in.  I know, dream on. And I will.

Anyways, after a few days, we left Los Angeles and began our odyssey up to San Francisco. One of our notable pit stops was  just north of San Simeon, where we saw a gathering of elephant seals. The female seals had just given birth a few days ago, and it was awe-inspiring seeing the mothers feeding their newborns and the fathers fighting for dominance over one another. There was one mother seal feeding two babies instead of  one, and we asked the guide standing near us why. He said  that she had stolen one of those baby seals from another nursing mother, and was now trying to feed both. What she didn’t realize was that she didn’t have enough milk to sustain both babies, and now the chances were good that both babies would die. Nature can be brutal.

After spending about an hour watching the seals, we left San Simeon and kept driving up to Berkeley. We were wrecks in every sense of the word, but we managed to pull it together to look semi-decent for my dad’s brother and his family that night. Now, I’m not an adult, but I know that it’s rare to have a really delicious meal served to you that you both don’t have to a) pay for and b) wait around for any number of hours after you’re finished eating to hear how the cook’s day went. That’s where you hit the jackpot with “extended” family. Everybody’s obviously close enough so that they’re not going to charge you anything for the food you eat, but the two families also don’t see one another enough to share the dreary, ultra-specific details of their weeks at the dinner table. It’s like culinary and familial heaven all wrapped up in into one heaping plate of awesome, which came that night in the form of an excellent Pad Thai dish with noodles and fresh chicken; everything made completely from scratch. The fact that my uncle and his wife have an adorable 1-year old baby just added to the hominess of the evening.

The next day, with the entertainment industry capital light years behind us, my family and I resorted to finding new ways to explore the area and/or keep our craziness at bay. For my mom, this meant finding as many we-haven’t-seen-each-other-since-college-but-that-doesn’t-mean-our-families-can’t-have-dinner-together-semi-friends as possible across the Bay Area and making sure we ate a meal with every single one of them. Oh, joy.

The next few days were a blur, but I do remember one of the more memorable “friends” and her accompanying entourage. They were the perfect family, just too perfect. The mom, or alpha-mom, was clearly the boss. She has some high-powered job in San Francisco, and her husband is a stay-at-home dad. Her children were 11 and 7, which perfectly matches the ages of my brother and me. Except that they don’t.

My mom insisted that all would be fine. “You’ll be sitting right next to us, her kids will be sophisticated and interesting, and I think you’ll really like her!” she promised. How bad could the night get?

Bad. The mom wanted nothing more than to reconnect with her old friend, and by nothing more, I mean she literally only spoke to my mom. Plus, her kids could not have been less responsive. When we walked in, her son was pouring over a book titled “Lego Lunatics,” and I think the girl was doing math homework. In short, I could tell that we weren’t going to be discussing the latest episode of “Family Guy” with these two. I tried starting a conversation every once in a while, but they expressed no interest in talking to my brother or me. To give you some perspective, by the end of the dinner, my brother’s hand was covered in upside-down crosses inspired by the hit new family sitcom, “The Devil Inside,” and I was halfway done with writing this post. I don’t think I’ve ever needed a electronic device so much.

However, the family as a whole offered one redeeming trait: they all worked well together. Even though their kids’ chemistry couldn’t have gelled worse with ours, they seemed to like each other, and I respect that. My parents, my brother, and I are all pretty lively people, but sometimes we struggle with the idea of staying out of each other’s way. Your family might consist of some of the funniest, savviest people on the planet, but if you can’t sit down and have a meal together, you’re in real trouble. So, whether your mom draws comparisons to Nancy from “Weeds” or she’s graced the cover of Parenting Magazine, we should all be as peaceful as possible with our families, because, deep down, they will love us like nobody else.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Vox Populari

In the fall of 2010, I started taking stand-up comedy classes in New York City. Two minutes into the first class, the guy handed us a packet of questions. Our answers to them weren’t supposed to be funny; they were supposed to serve as the launching point for our acts and whatever material we would incorporate into them. I took three or four classes with the same comedy troupe, and all of the questions changed from class to class, except one: “What does it take to become popular in high school?”

If you’re an adult reading this, you‘re probably thinking back to your high school days and thanking God that you don’t have to muddle through this stuff anymore. But if you’re a teenager, my guess is that you’re living some version of the following:
• You’re not popular but you want to be.
• You are popular but the pressure is getting to you.
• You were popular but the pressure was too strong so you backed away.
• You’re kind of popular and you’d like to be more so.
• You’ll never be popular and you don’t even care, though maybe you do, just a little bit.

And if you’re a middle school or elementary school kid and you’re reading this blog, know that I would take a couple extra geometry problems any day over walking into school and seeing your crush making out with a senior.

Yes, that actually happened. I get thirty feet into the front entrance of my high school, and…Oh look! Brad Foxwell is locking mouths with the girl I wanted to ask to our winter dance. A fine start to the day.

It’d be easy to throw hordes of clichés out about what it’s like to be in high school, and here are a few that you probably hear the most;
• High school is hard for everyone.
• High school changes people, but by college, everybody mellows out.
• High school is full of people who are at the mercy of their hormones and hormones make everyone crazy and aggressive, so don’t take it personally (although I don’t know how to tell you not to)
• How you do in high school doesn’t forecast how you do later in life. I promise.
• It’s really important you do well in high school. But no pressure.

All true and all bull. The bottom line is that high school is rough.

I go to a diverse private school, and I think it’s fairly representative of what goes on at other schools. Sometimes you gotta wonder: Why do people act the way they do? How can otherwise nice people devolve into fire-breathing dragons in order to achieve social success? Is it nature or nurture that drives people to alienate friends, harass teachers, and do anything within and beyond reason to achieve “popularity”? Are some boys born susceptible to being emotionally and psychologically tied to the Queen Bees’ opinions of them? Are some girls born to naturally kick dirt in the eyes of any guy who doesn’t look like Ryan Gosling or Dwight Howard?

Lots of questions, not a lot of answers. Everyone wants to be popular but why?

Right now I’m studying the Roman Empire in history class, and a word that often comes up is the root of the word “popular”. The Romans were big on mentioning it in the names of their assemblies, the great philosophical insights of the time like the works of Virgil and Seneca, and in general keeping the word “popular” a part of Roman culture. One of the most famous sayings to survive the fall of Rome was the phrase printed on every statue, temple, amphitheater, and even the Coliseum: “senatus populusque romanus.” (Roughly translated: “The senate and the people of Rome.”) Another well-known line: “vox populi,” or “the voice of the people”. There are many other examples, but the word “populus” or “populi” generally carried the meaning of “common” or “of the people”. It had nothing to do with being elite or selective. And, considering that the Roman Empire lasted nearly a thousand years, I think we can assume that they had a good thing going there.

So, my question is, how has this concept of popularity been so distorted in our modern American society to have now become some elusive game that makes friends willing to strong-arm each other for?

It’s not impossible, obviously. People climb the high school ladder all the time. But what I struggle to understand is why someone would throw up their hands and commit to being a crappy person (or, as Holden Caulfield would say in The Catcher in the Rye, a “phoney”) for the last few years of his/her childhood just to have a chance with some blonde bombshell? (Well, everyone knows why. She’s pretty and the desire to be pretty and be with pretty girls is what drives teenagers.)

When I tell people I’m a freshman in high school, usually one of the first questions they ask is some variation of “What have you learned from it so far?” This isn’t as evident in middle school as it now is in high school, but I’ve realized that being super “in” comes with some hefty drawbacks in addition to whatever glorious upside it seems to present. One is that, for the most part, you seem to be forced to leave your old, legitimate friends for kids with who you don’t actually have anything in common.

The really frustrating aspect of this is that you just don’t win by being a nice guy in high school. Of course, it’s easy for me to sit here and write this on my laptop, but if a Queen Bee approached me and wanted to hang out, would I really decline her offer? Uh, no.

It feels at times like the tried-and-true path to popularity in high school is to abandon your true friends and become a total bonehead, and I don’t fully understand how or why the system is set up to work that way. In college, it’s obviously a different story, but for now, it feels like the good guys have no option but just to sit back and let the schmucks run the show for the next few years.

I know this is an age-old phenomenon. Teens wanting to be popular is nothing new, but now the technological revolution is putting a new spin on it that acts as a serrated edge to an already pointy knife.

Anyway, as I mentioned before, my school’s winter dance, officially called “Snowball,” is in a few weeks. It’s Sadie Hawkins style, which means that the girls ask the guys. That kind of turns the boys into sitting ducks, praying that they get asked and hoping that their social standing is acceptable enough to score a date. Since, as a guy, you can’t actually asked anybody, all you can do is befriend as many girls as possible and hope that one of them thinks you’re cute or funny.

Of course, when you ask somebody to be your date to a high school dance, you’re not proposing to him or her. There’s really no attachment whatsoever, besides awkwardly dancing with them during the one slow song the DJ plays and possibly hooking up with the guy or girl at an after-party. It’s not marriage. You don’t have to think they’re attentive to you, you don’t have to believe in the same ideals, and you certainly don’t have to be in love with them; in fact, you don’t really even have to like them. You just have to find them mildly attractive and/or be socially conscious enough to know that having your name attached to the other person’s name might raise your social standing.

And with Snowball coming up, I can already see a spike in all this back-and-forth, jockeying-for-position-on-the-hierarchy bullcrap that dominates the weeks leading up to a major social occasion.

So, where does that leave me? Or you?

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Wrestling with Wrestling

I’m no Neanderthal. I’ve never been a super athlete, never brandished a 6-pack, never dated a Queen Bee (or whatever the politically correct term is for high school divas). If you can imagine a bunch of teenagers sitting in a room together, I’m definitely not the one hogging the pull-up bar or doing one-handed push-ups with his shirt off. I’ve been invited to try out the jock ropes a couple times, but I always surprise myself with the kind of vague, creative excuses I come up with to literally avoid butting heads with some of the more infamous guys in my grade. I’ve really just never seen myself as a jock.

But there was one sport that required intense physical drive, which for some reason enthralled me: Wrestling. I know it sounds ridiculous. If this kid doesn’t like getting beaten around, what is he doing strapping on a singlet and inviting a man-child with zero percent body fat to pin him to a mat?

If you didn’t cringe when you read that you’ve either never watched a match or you’re Arnold Schwarzenegger. Wrestling is probably the world’s oldest sport. It’s been around since cavemen were fighting each other for food. The animals do it. I saw a couple of alpha male elephant seals go at it today on the California coast. They drew blood, until one of them slunk away. Even they know that in wrestling, it’s you vs. him. Mono y mono. And only one of you is going to get up from the mat smiling.

There is a small contingent of people who find the good in wrestling, and I fall into that category. On the first day of seventh grade, I needed a sport to do, and while walking to the basketball courts (and what I’m sure would have been a laughably mediocre basketball career), my friend Ken, who knows the ins and outs of my school better than I do, came up to me and said, “Hey Matt, Stevenson (a senior) told me basketball blows. Let’s go to wrestling.” Thus began my career.

I entered wrestling after having played three years of low-level hockey. During that period I had amassed three or four concussions. The deal with my pediatrician and parents was basically to wrestle until I got a concussion. Not that it was necessarily going to happen, but if it did, I needed to know that five concussions would mark the end of my time as a wrestler.

But first I had to survive opening week. At first, wrestling was awful. My legs were shaking, my stomach was functioning more like a punching bag than a bodily organ, and my confidence had fallen off a cliff. The first kid I ever wrestled pinned me in 19 seconds, and my teammates and I later named him “The Ax Murderer” because of his shaved head and bone-chillingly nonchalant facial expressions. You didn’t think he was going to pin you; you thought he was going to abduct you and take you back to his home planet. After that match, I was certain that my wrestling career was going to be shorter than a Kim Kardashian marriage.

But things changed. I toughened up, I lost some weight, and things became bearable. Wrestling life wasn’t pretty, but it was manageable. Since then, wrestling has dominated all my winters. I’ve gotten a little better, and I’ve learned how to mentally adapt to such an inherently brutal sport. I learned that it’s a great adrenaline booster, and from a parenting perspective it supposedly takes the edge off a teenage boy’s “angst”. I started to actually love wrestling. So, naturally, I completely forgot about the concussion rule.

Until last week.

My usual partner, Andrew, was sick that day with a sinus infection, so I was matched with Shane, a senior, who could only be described as a human-gorilla combination. He didn’t look fearsome, but with his arms around you and his legs churning away on the mat, you felt like King Kong’s prey. Anyway, we were in “neutral position,” which is basically just circling each other like two animals on the prowl, staring each other down, waiting for the other to make the tiniest slip. We both attempted a “takedown” (a move that, if done correctly, takes the other person down on the mat) at the exact same time, and our heads collided. If he even felt it, he was ready to continue right away, but I was seeing stars. I knew it was a concussion. The mental haziness, the clouded thoughts, the sensitivity to light; all my familiar symptoms were there. All that was left to do was check with my doctor, who confirmed it.

“Matt, you need to find a new sport,” he said, “or at least one that won’t give you Alzheimer’s.”

Well, that helps.

Now a decision must be made. I have to do some sport, and yet the definition of “sport” for a teenage guy often includes some level of tackling/roughhousing/physical domination. Football, hockey, wrestling, etc., are things that take the jagged edge off life as a teenager, something that sports like golf and curling don’t really do. So, what now?

That’s what I’m wrestling with.