I Just Bet My Balls...And Shook On It

Balls... or, as they say down on da Sout’ Side over by dere, “Bahllssss”. They tell me to talk about balls, okay, I’ll talk about friggin’ balls. I mean, it’s not like the ball isn’t a fundamental, archetypal element in whatcha call yer basic American psyche or anything, right? It’s a legitimate topic for my own brand of editorial hot air, wouldn’tcha say? And it ain’t just all a gonadal thing either (though, to be fair, it’s not like this country doesn’t have a bit of a testicular fixation, but I’m sure we’ll ramble on back towards that slopus slickaricum in due course). In a sports-mad nation like ours, there’s also just the good ol’ fashioned, “let’s-play-catch, hey-champ-would-you-sign-this-for-a-fella, aw-shit-we-roofed-it-AGAIN, plaaaaaaaaaay... BALLL!!!!!” thing to consider. So... uh... lemme smoke this here, and I’ll limber up the ol’ thinker and we can talk a little bounce-a-dee-ball...

(Time passes... ceilings are stared at, Cheetos are devoured, short-term memory gets a night locked in the ol’ sweat-box for being uppity, and we... uh... resume...)

Oh... hey! Er... what were we talking about? Oh yeah... Play Doh. Erm... no... the, ah... history of snack cakes? No. Uh, I mean... the postulation of temporal rifts caused by the sudden dehypocritization of... uh... that is to say...

...oh yeah... Balls.

So... I think that in past articles, I’ve probably painted a picture of my early years that leaves an impression that I wasn’t exactly on the grammar school A-list, socially speaking. Lest we dive into this topic whilst laboring under any misconceptions, let’s just get it out on the table right now: I was not then, nor have I ever since been, worth a corn-ridden rat shit at sports. I mean, I just completely and utterly suck at any sort of athletic contest. When I was a kid, my classmates would practically resort to blood feuds over who was going to get stuck with the last pick for kick ball (that this last pick was always me was the third absolute life certainty, right after death and taxes). The Eisenhower-era purveyors of personal bomb shelters enjoyed a resurging business in my town once news of the completely random nature of my throwing arm became generally known. To this day, all I have to do to make every insurance agent in the area spontaneously shit his drawers (and the local glaziers’ union dance an anticipatory jig) is to pick up a Frisbee and walk outside. It’s that bad.

Suffice to say, I was never seduced by the lure of the ballpark, nor did I ever elevate sports figures to hero status. As I got older, I certainly developed an appreciation for a good Bulls game, and I’ve seen a few football games on the tube that have kept my attention, but for all intents and purposes, sports just don’t occupy a significant portion of my slowly-dwindling day-to-day attention span. Other than whatever seeps into my melon peripherally, most of what goes on in the sports world just doesn’t really register with me. I’m not totally oblivious, mind you. As I understand it, though, apparently Kobe Bryant recently killed OJ Simpson, and Pete Rose made a small fortune betting on it while Anna Cornucopia celebrated the whole affair by hiking her skirt halfway up her ass and wiggling it for the crowd at Wimbledon... or something like that. Maybe I heard it wrong and Michael Jordan came out of retirement again...

All I do know is that Chicago has apparently been invaded by the goddamned Venusians, and nobody’s saying squat about it.

I was cruising down Lake Shore Drive the other day, and right there in front of God and Da Mayor and everyone, was the Mothership from Close Encounters parked square on top of Soldier Field. I shit you not! Big ol’ honkin’ flying saucer perched nice as you please right atop the home of Bears country. And the fucked-uppest thing was the fact that nobody was giving it a second look! Everyone’s just going on about their daily business as if there weren’t a Venusian attack cruiser cooling its jets on top of our beloved stadium... it really does go to show that people just don’t fucking pay attention anymore. What this will do to the Bears’ home game schedule is anybody’s guess at this point... it sure has to have stopped the renovation efforts in their tracks, I’d say. Who can install miniscule plastic stadium seats properly with the friggin’ Death Star dumping little green men on their head all day?

But hey, as long as it doesn’t delay the next season of The Sopranos, and as long as the little green guys don’t bi-locate into my apartment in the dead of night and start deliriously and lustily mounting my goldfish, I reckon can live with it.

Uh... I know I had a point to all this last time I looked. Oh yeah... sucked at sports as a kid. Right. What was always bizarre to me was the stuff that passed as “sport” when we were in junior high gym class. Yeah, I’m old enough to have called it “junior high school” before the NeverGrowEmUp crowd decided to ratchet the whole thing down and call it “middle school”. Before, at least the thing was named honestly... junior high school sounds like exactly what it is: Parris Island boot camp to strap an inch or two of callus across our backs before we shipped out to the jungles of high school. As psychotic as junior high school was, though, at least the name tended to denote an upward progression towards adulthood, an anticipatory sense that the Big Time was just up ahead a bit, as long as we could make it through three years of institutional lunacy without losing a limb.

Then suddenly, not too long after I moved on to the institutional lunacy of high school, of college, and beyond, somebody somewhere apparently decided that the term “junior high school” was no longer appropriate, and that it would be a stroke of mediocratic genius to convince the world to call it “middle school” instead. I mean, yes... technically junior high was always the educational equivalent of getting stuck riding bitch in the back seat between your older and younger brothers on a family vacation, but come on... at least give the poor kids a little something to hang their hat on! MIDDLE school?? I honestly don’t think it would be possible to come up with a more neutering term for a place of learning than “middle” school. “Middle”... “Nice”... “Fine”... “Neither Here Nor There”. Brilliant idea... why not just call it “Tain’t” school and get to the heart of the matter? No, because that would require some level of deductive thought to understand (and we don’t want the kids learning that, now do we?), which would in turn lead inexorably in the direction of a crotch joke, which no 13 year-old can resist, and which would obviously tend to cause the whippersnappers to hoot and holler and fornicate in the halls, and that’s the last thing our nation’s educators want to admit is gonna happen anyway, so... let’s stick 'em with “Middle School” and that ought to take care of the problem and simmer everyone down so they can muddle through the incomprehensibility of algebra, truly appreciate the grammatical magnificence of the classic “gerund”, and revel in their own innate social clumsiness. And even more obviously, true to form, the second they pulled that on the kids was when kids started showing up to school clad in body armor and toting shoulder-mounted anti-tank missiles. Coincidence? I haven’t the fuckiest of an idea...

But, when I was there it was still good ol’ junior high school, and we tended to express ourselves without flame throwers and dirty nukes. (Closest we came to that was probably the old “drop the flaming bag of shit on the front porch and ding-dong-ditch 'em” trick...) But that’s not to say that our early teen years didn’t have that classic Lord of the Flies touch to it. As I said, junior high school seemed to exist mainly to beat us all to a jaded pulp before we got to high school, and one of the main tools used to this end was gym class.

I remember a game from grade school that we used to play quite a bit, and it never seemed to do much harm, always seemed to be a decent alternative to the altercations that would always break out during the “who gets stuck with Russell on their team?” phase of the average game of kick ball, and the game in question went under the comparatively innocuous name of “Dodge Ball”. As in: “Whew! We get to play Dodge Ball today...”

By the time junior high school rolled around, and our bodies and social interactions were morphing into something less familiar and infinitely weirder than we were used to, so did Dodge Ball undergo a mutational metamorphosis... suddenly it was called “Murder Ball”.

As in: “We have to play Murder Ball today? Shit. I’m fucking doomed...”

There were three main differences between Dodge Ball and Murder Ball (other than, of course, the average death rate of the players): first off, Dodge Ball was played with those big, soft, swirly-colored, generic “balls” that you could buy at the toy store out of one of those big six-foot-tall wire baskets. The only way to raise a welt with one of these things was to slice it into a big strip and snap it at somebody like a wet towel. In other words, the balls themselves relegated Dodge Ball to the realm of a harmless game.

Murder Ball, however, was played with small, fist-sized balls made out of the same rubber you’d find on a hot water bottle, and adorned with a pattern of little raised rubber cross-hatches, evidently to increase the likelihood that a direct hit would draw blood. “Ribbed, For HIS Torture”...

Secondly, in grade school we had a gym teacher... basically a big, fun, harmless middle-aged kid with a whistle around his neck. He’d come up with goofy nicknames for everyone and always seemed to be in a good mood, and his main goal in being a gym teacher was essentially to make sure everyone had fun, and maybe to impart a few basics about good sportsmanship when we weren’t looking. In junior high, we had The Godfather in sneakers and a Nike t-shirt. He’d order the hit, distribute the murder balls, quietly watch as his goons systematically took us out one by one, and afterwards on at least one occasion be heard to mutter, “No hard feelings, this is just business.” In the somewhat paraphrased words of Chicago’s original Da Mayor, our high school gym warden wasn’t there to preserve order, he was there to preserve disorder. Evidently, he got paid by the welt... and I have no doubt whatsoever that he retired a very wealthy man.

“We have to play Murder Ball today? Shit. I’m fucking doomed...”

Which brings us to the third and most significant difference between the two games: the relative age of the participants. Dodge Ball was a grade school game... which meant that the balls were being thrown by grade schoolers, and in mixed company as well. Our arms just weren’t developed enough to do much damage to begin with, and there was always the fact that there were also girls playing it to kinda force the gym coach’s hand into keeping things relatively calm.

Suddenly, we get to junior high, they’re sending the guys and the gals to different gym classes, and whereas five minutes or so before we had been playing Dodge Ball with a bunch of grade school kids, now we were suddenly dumped into a Roman arena with a mob of gigantic ninth-graders who were not only out for blood, but were also well-practiced at drawing it. There, rumors abounded that some of them had actually spent a year in a Russian training camp, learning the most efficient and painful methods of separating one’s limbs from one’s body using only a thrown rubber ball. The ninth-graders used to actually make bets amongst themselves as to how many of us seventh-graders each of them could take out in one game, which of us would last until the end of the game (thereby ensuring that we’d be taken out not by a single killing blow, but by a coordinated firestorm of murder balls), and so forth.

There’s the old wartime saying that you never hear the bullet that kills you. This, however, didn’t apply to Murder Ball. A murder ball thrown by a ninth-grader with an arm like a thunderbolt (and at my age and diminutive size, most of them seemed to have such an arm) tends to whip through the air with a distinctive dull, low whistle. Unless you happened to see it being thrown, the only warning you had that you were about to get pulverized was that dull whirr of the ball splitting the air on its way towards your head. And, of course, on those occasions when I had the good fortune to be saved for last, not having had the sense to leap in front of a ball early in the game, that telltale whirring sound was multiplied by about half a dozen or more, and I could only hope, at that point, that I’d wake up from my coma in time for college. Suffice to say that in History class, I could easily appreciate the horror of anticipation that Londoners went through in WWII when the Germans launched their buzz-bombs over the Channel at them.

And yet, people still wonder how and why I possibly could have ended up being the left-leaning iconoclast I am today. “Patrick, dude, why don’t you just chill out, stop bitching, turn on CNN, and watch The War Show with us today? They’re gonna drop a MOAB on a cluster of mud hits outside of Tikrit! It’s gonna be AWESOME!!!” Yeah, I’ll be right there, let me just pop some fuckin’ corn, crack a beer, grab this apple corer and yank my friggin’ soul outta my left ear first, and I’ll be right there to kick off my shoes and watch severed limbs fly through the air with y’all... anyone want Pop Tarts?

A massive military invasion against a country that really hadn’t managed to rebuild since the last time we pulverized them a decade ago? What does it say about the quality of my adolescent educational experience that this is flashing me back to a junior high game of murder ball? And what, by the same token, does it say about the nature of President AWOL’s fixation on war?

And speaking of Pete Rose and gambling, did anyone notice the little get-rich-quick scheme that they came up with at the Pentagon recently? (Because obviously they need all the extra money they can get, since the liberal ingrates in Congress only give them a third of the federal budget every year...) It was (and I happily emphasize the word “was”) essentially an official death pool for Bush’s “war on terrah”. The Internet site covering it (which disappeared promptly when a public outcry forced the program to be eighty-sixed at the end of July) called it the Policy Analysis Market or, for those who respond more positively to cute little acronyms, “PAM”. The front page of the site offered this misleadingly innocuous description: “The Policy Analysis Market will provide insight into the interactions between Middle Eastern and U.S. interests and policy decisions.” It’s certainly an interesting way of phrasing the term “Terrorism Futures Market”, isn’t it? Because that’s exactly what this was. Instead of buying into the hog belly futures market, what the Pentagon was proposing (or, rather, what was proposed by John “Why Am I Not Rotting In Prison For Iran-Contra?” Poindexter... yet another Reagan-era white collar criminal that Bush put back on the government payroll the first chance he got) was that people could essentially place bets on various possibilities for international incidents and acts of terrorism, and they’d win money if their predicted outcome actually came to pass.

The PAM site even offered a sample of one of their little betting slips. Obser-uv...

This is the actual example they provided to potential gamblers, which I copied just before the web site was taken offline. When the flap over this really got going, those responsible for the program insisted that it was merely an “intelligence-gathering tool”, and that those who raised a stink about it were hampering Bush’s “war on terrah”. Now, take a good look at exactly what this “intelligence gathering tool” consisted of... I’m no gambler, but doesn’t it look just a wee bit like a double-axis version of a Vegas line sheet? Essentially, the idea was to turn our nation’s foreign policy (and the potential repercussions thereof) into fodder for a cheap tavern punch-board! Who’d have ever expected that one could get a cushy government job as a bookie? And at the Pentagon, no less! Would they have given them honorary military ranks? “Uh yeah, this here is, uh, General Knuckles, over dere ya gots Colonel Fast Eddie, dat’s Admiral Icepick, an’, uh... Commodore Gabagool over at da bar.”

Betting on assassinations, terrorist attacks, and military coups... what’s next, distributing the latest census of a given country and betting on which specific people will bite it when we go in to “liberate” them? Or perhaps not specific people, but at least a range of names...

“Let’s see... gimme thirty-six Kalil’s, forty-seven Ladan’s... better throw in about fifty-two Laleh’s as well... and... oh, how about a hundred forty-seven Ali’s and about a dozen Omar’s. And I’m gonna go for the full dismemberment bonus on all of them. Capiche?”

How about a betting pool on what Bush’s next colossally stupid remark is going to be? I mean, that’s one thing I’ve got to give the guy credit for... every statement he makes may be an embarrassingly lame line of bullshit, but you never really know which direction he’s gonna come from next. After all, who would possibly have been able to predict that when faced with questions about our anemic economy that he’d respond by blaming the nation’s economic woes on the fact that the media “beat the war drums” with their “March To War” coverage in the weeks and months leading up to the invasion of Iraq?

But guess what? That’s exactly what he did.

Excuse me? Uh, hey Porgie... WHO was beating the war drums again? Who stood in front of this nation and assured them that Iraq had this massive WMD arsenal, and had been attempting to buy uranium from a small African nation, and that this is why we absolutely had to go to war, when in fact virtually none of the “evidence” thus presented had much, if any, basis in reality? Who has been insisting for almost two years now that this nation will be in a state of war for the rest of most of our lifetimes? And who regularly uses a fully compliant media as a delivery system for his incessant sales pitches aimed at maintaining support for the continued, strategy-free occupation of Iraq?

That’s what I thought...

But you want to really know what kind of balls this two-bit bullshit artist has? He immediately seized upon the recent blackout of the northeastern portion of the nation and tried to make political hay out of it, calling the debacle a “wake-up call” to the antiquated state of the country’s power grid, and acting as if he’d been trying to tell us this all along. The problem with this little stunt is that back in June 2001, the Democrats in the House of Representatives proposed that the government provide $350 million in loans in order to modernize the nation’s power grid, citing problems with both reliability and capacity. Doesn’t sound too unreasonable... the power grid needs fixing, let’s fix the bastard. Obvious, right?

Who’d have ever expected that one could get a cushy government job as a bookie?

For those of you who don’t already see where this is going, Bush opposed the bill, and congressional Republicans voted it down on three separate occasions, with House Majority Whip Tom “Swell Guy” DeLay dismissing the bill as “pure demagoguery.” The measure never passed, and the known problems with the nation’s power grid were ignored until a significant portion of the grid tanked.

But Bush is supposedly taking a “leadership position” on the issue now, two years later, and the blackout was a “wake-up call”. And you know what? People are still actually buying the crap this guy is slinging. Somehow, some way, there are still an awful lot of people out there who refuse to accept the fact that George W. Bush and his cronies are lying to us at virtually every opportunity. Hell, I still hear people claiming that I don’t “support the troops” because I believe that the war itself serves no good purpose other than to enrich the president’s friends and to distract us from the fact that Bush (like his father) has no domestic plan beyond “Feed the Rich and Put Everyone Else in Prison”, and that it was justified using “evidence” which virtually across the board turned out to be baseless at best, concocted out of thin air at worst. Am I organizing groups of terrorist-loving hippies to stake out airports and spit on returning war vets? Hell no! If I bumped into an Iraq War vet in a bar, I’d be among the first to buy the guy a beer. Let me tell you something, it’d be a damned sight more than his government is willing to do for him at this point.

Think I’m bullshitting? Okay, let’s review... the troops aren’t being given near enough drinking water to get by in desert heat (three liters per day is the average ration), they’ve been subsisting on an MRE diet and will continue to do so indefinitely, they are being given no real plans, goals, or strategies by their superiors (or, by extension, by their Commander-In-Chief and his cadre of chickenhawks), and they have no idea when or even if they will be sent home.

And now on top of all this, they’re getting slapped in the face with a pay cut, when they were being paid a pittance for putting their lives on the line in the first place. In all too many cases, their families are living on food stamps as it is, but they’re getting a pay cut?

See, somehow that is “support for the troops” and questioning the wisdom and necessity of sticking them in this mess in the first place is not.

Ah yes, Bush’s Bizarro World just spins along...

But I think this kinda comes down to the fact that so many Americans have been conditioned to treat war and politics as a sport. You pick your “team” and you hoot and holler and pump your fist in the air every time they so much as twitch an earlobe, and anyone who doesn’t match your energy in following suit is one of “them” and therefore it is your sworn duty to heap as much shit on their heads as possible. In this world view, if you’re not a Republican, you’re automatically a Democrat (read: baby-killing, America-hating, terrorist-loving, last-drumstick-snagging, elevator-farting, NAMBLA-belonging TRAITOR!). If you feel that war is an avenue of last resort rather than a goal to be achieved, and/or if you believe that it was wrong for George W. Bush to deliberately mislead the American people when he was making his case for war, then you hate the troops and will not be able to resist spitting on them when they come home, you mourn the loss of a great world leader like Saddam Hussein, and you are, of course, by extension... a baby-killing, America-hating, terrorist-loving, last-drumstick-snagging, elevator-farting, NAMBLA-belonging TRAITOR!

Many folks just can’t seem to help this... they have apparently just absorbed so much of this societal compulsion towards vicariously satisfying their need for competition that they turn into watered-down soccer hooligans any time anyone points out the fact that their president never met a tale that was tall enough for him, and that the administration’s “war at any cost” policies are needlessly dragging down not only this nation, but also the rest of the world. By doing so, you’ve questioned the size and operational nature of their cajones, and they cannot cope with the cracks that this threatens to put in their collective ego. To the neo-nutsies out there who blindly support George W. Bush, opposition to his policies, to his war, to his presidency, is tantamount to telling a bunch of Chicagoans that the Bears are wrong for showing up to play football. Talk about a guaranteed conniption trigger! Try that in a South Side neighborhood bar, and you’ll be buried alive in a barrage of chicken wings and half-guzzled Old Styles. Like the Bush cultists when faced with questions about the legitimacy of the president’s crusade over in the Middle East, no way will they stand for it, even as a passing suggestion. The game must go on!

Problem is, sometimes reality tends to throw up an unexpected roadblock or three. Newly “liberated” people don’t always dance in the streets and blow kisses at their new occupiers, sometimes resistance movements spring up, sometimes money runs out, sometimes you get there only to find that somebody else has already rented out your battlefield of choice, and sometimes... just sometimes... you show up for a game only to find that somebody’s parked a massive flying saucer on top of your friggin’ stadium!

So... next time I point out what a murderous joke Bush’s invasion and occupation of New Halliburtonia has been (and continues to be), if that bursts some massively-testicled bubble you’ve somehow been nursing all this time, remember... don’t blame me...

Blame the goddamned Venusians!

© 2003, Patrick Russell
Images: policyanalysismarket.org, Patrick Russell; South Park is a trademark of Comedy Central

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