Friday, February 26, 2010

Awesome! Really?

I watched an excellent documentary last night on the lunatic/writer Harlan Ellison. Ellison has written about a trillion words on a million subjects, but he is perhaps most noted for his science fiction writing and over-the-edge short stories, such as "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs." I've always found his writing (I've read only a small percentage) fascinating, honest, brutally funny, scathing. The documentary, in which he participated fully (he is a bit enamored of himself), is damn good and I recommend it if you are a fan of Ellison's writing. It's called "Dreams With Sharp Teeth."

Ellison warmed the cockles of my heart, though, when, as the documentary approached its conclusion, he encountered a fan who proclaimed that his work, Ellison's work, was "awesome."

Harlan, who, at the time, was filling a plate with food, put down the plate, looked the fan in the face and told him that no, the Grand Canyon was awesome. The Sistine Chapel is awesome. His work was not. Awesome. He begged the fan to join in the crusade to return that wonderful word to its proper place in the lexicon. Because if pedestrian things, like lunch, lawn furniture and TV shows can be "awesome," then the word means nothing. It certainly doesn't mean what it means, which is "awe inspiring." Lunch cannot, really, inspire awe. Having a fun time at the mall can't be awesome. It cannot inspire awe. Really. It can't. No, don't argue with me. It cannot.

The last time I can remember when I could legitimately have used the word "awesome" was when I traveled to Toronto in the early 2000's for a Red Sox-Blue Jays series. The Sox swept all four games, but that was not an awesome accomplishment. I didn't drive close enough to Niagara Falls to see the Falls, which I'm sure were awesome, but because I missed them, there was nothing awesome about the drive. I was, however, sitting in the third base upper boxes when Manny Ramirez, who used to be a ballplayer, drilled a sad pitch from Chris Carpenter into the fifth--the FIFTH-- deck at whatever the hell they called that stadium back then. I had never, ever seen anything like the trajectory of the ball off the bat on that day, at that moment, and I remember turning to the guy next to me, probably a Canadian because he was on the Blue Jays side of the field (I took what seats they gave me), and I said to him, "Good God in Heaven." A mammoth blast. An astonishing athletic achievement. Certainly, truly...awesome.

But when I ask somebody if they saw AVATAR and they say yeah, it was awesome...

I have an unbelievably awesome desire to leap for his or her throat and wring some semblance of true awe into his or her brain.

The word is no longer simply overused.

It is universally abused.

I would like to call a moratorium on the use of the word "awesome." Maybe for ten years. That might do it. And then, we'll all meet at the foot of the Sphinx and look up and, in unison, we can all say the word again. At that point, perhaps, the word will have returned to its proper place in the world of adjectives, and no longer will we be tempted to describe things like American Idol, a trip to Milwaukee, or Lady Gaga as awesome.

Once that is accomplished, we can get to work on the various spellings of there, their and they're.

Monday, February 22, 2010

This Time of Year, Sundays, Back Then

This is what I did on Sunday afternoons in February and early March, when I was a yoot. (Thank you, Joe Pesci, MY COUSIN VINNY.)

Well, first of all what I did on Sunday afternoons in February when I was a yoot was I probably whined. Because of what I had to do. Whining did me no good at all, because what I had to do had to be done.

And what that was, was...

I had to go to the old armory up on Westford Street in Lowell, MA. Not sure what time of day. Maybe mid-afternoon. And I had to march. With the Sacred Heart Band. We marched at the armory on Sundays in February and early March because we were preparing to march--really march--in the annual St. Patrick's Day Parade in Manhattan, and, damn it, if we were going to do that, we were going to practice.

And, of course, it wasn't just marching. It was marching and playing my trumpet. At the same time. Playing trumpet is not a very easy thing to do. At all times, as you pucker up to that mouthpiece, your lips and your tongue are in serious jeopardy of becoming bashed or pinched, especially when you are marching. Listen to a marching band sometime--any level of ability--and you will hear the occasional frightening sound emanating from a trumpet when the trumpet player steps in a pothole or some kind of bump in the road. And trust me, the sound you hear isn't nearly as painful as the pain of the player's pinched pucker.

But I digress, which I am very good at.

As I recall, I did everything in my power to get my mother or father to drive me to the armory early--like 45 minutes early--not because of any desire to warm up or practice puckering. No. What happened a half hour before the marching was the only fun thing February Sundays featured--the basketball playing.

That is, if we could find the basketball.

The armory was something of a basketball court. God knows who played there. But there were hoops and, somewhere in the bowels of that building, usually in the possession of a friendly (sometimes) custodian huddled in some dark basement cubbyhole listening to whatever sports were left to listen to on the radio on a February Sunday, a basketball. The first who showed up of those of us who wanted to play would seek out this elusive old coot and talk him into giving us the basketball. And we would choose sides and we would play. And we would play hard. Much harder than we would march. And we would sweat. So that by the time the marching started, we were ready for a shower that would never happen.

At starting time, the whistle would blow--the whistle either came from band director Ray Greeley, or drum instructor Al Gougen, or marching instructors Johnny Conlon or Jack Morris (not the Tigers pitcher), and we would reluctantly roll the ball off to the sidelines (giving the custodian something to do later in the afternoon), grab our various instruments, and line up.

Lining up was a big deal. We weren't the greatest musicians in the world, nor were we the most talented marchers, but, damn, could we line up. I was one of the privileged who got to be at the end of a line, and, therefore, got to lift my left arm up and wait for the seven or so kids in my line to align themselves as neatly as possible. Once the marching started, the line was shot to hell. But boy, could we line up with the best of them.

Then we would march in a circle around the armory. And around the armory. And around. And around. And around. And, I have to say, what we really didn't do, was march. We more or less walked. In tempo. Marching is a thing that the Sacred Heart Band pretended to do, but really didn't do. We called it marching, though, so we felt okay about it.

We'd march around and around for an hour, then take a break--more basketball, more sweating--and then we'd march again for another half hour, though this time the marching was more complicated. We counter marched! That meant that we eschewed the circle, and spread our lines across the width of the floor, and marched up and down. When you reached the end of the hall, you turned and marched back, cagily avoiding the line coming at you. Counter marching! It never really made a lot of sense. We probably did it just to keep our parents entertained. There's only so much entertainment you can get out of circle marching.

At the end of a total of two hours, we'd go home.

I don't think, after each session, we were any better as marchers.

Nor as basketball players.

But there was something about the anticipation of that real march down up Fifth Avenue on March 17 that made the armory Sundays exciting. We all knew we were focused on something special.

The armory isn't there anymore. There's a playground, I think.

And I bet--I swear to God, I bet--that underneath that playground is a buried room in which one can find a worn and beaten old basketball.

And probably a custodian.