The post-match report

Some friends of mine and I have a game we play any time we all go to a party together. We don’t really have a name for it – it definitely needs one – but we pattern it after the television coverage of a major sporting event.

A big football match is the most apt corollary. When the game is on television, the channel showing it inevitably carries hours of pre-match coverage, featuring countless commentators looking at the major storylines heading into the big game. Which player must have a big game for his team to win, which manager is most likely to have a go at the fourth official, which poor bastard is the most liable to miss a sitter at a crucial moment. Then, when the game is over and the plot has played itself out, the same commentators gather to dissect every aspect of the contest, who played well, who didn’t, so on, poring over every little detail, singling out amusing or critical points, the ones that will be remembered, the ones that will go down in history and/or infamy. These analysts have studied the game in and out, beforehand and afterwards, and they know every move, every player, every strategy, every technique, and why it mattered, why it was important.

In our party game, we’re the commentators. Beforehand, we chatter about who’s going to be there, what kind of parties the host usually has, what time is appropriate to show up, laying out the plotlines, who’s going to avoid whom, who’s going to try to hook up, who’s going to sit in the corner and not talk to anyone. But the real fun comes in the post-match report, where we connect the dots of all the people we know, reflect on what we’ve learned about them, gossip and chatter and mock people and venerate others and, namely, try to make some sense of it all. We’ll go on and on.

Man, Mike really was drunk tonight. Katy’s boyfriend is a bit of a moron, isn’t he? I hadn’t noticed, but Dan seems to have gained a little weight since he quit smoking. It’s good to see Joe and Rachel so happy. Gives you hope, doesn’t it? Greg’s such a socialite. You can just wind him and watch him go. Can you believe Karen was there? I haven’t seen her in years. She looks great. What’s the name of that one guy, the tall one with the stupid hair and big nose? Jeff, that’s right. I can’t believe I got stuck talking to Andy for so long. One of you guys should have saved me. What did they put in that cocktail, anyway?

The chatter is alternately catty and admiring and self-centred and idiotic and everything that’s great and tragic and pointless and hysterical. It is our common language, brilliant commentary that only we understand. And these people, my friends, all those who play the game and those who use the Average Formation Map to describe their moves… these are all people in my circle, in my tribe, the ever-widening and contracting coliseum of my life, and their lives, the ongoing story, the never-ending jam session. A bunch of clamouring cicadas, bumping into each other, making connections, drifting apart, supporting characters in everyone’s Oscar-winning role.

That’s what it is, actually; it’s an ongoing play we’re constantly rewriting, crumpling pages that didn’t work out right, starting anew, but always, always, writing on. And what keeps us going are our friends, those who know us, those whom we irritate and love us anyway, the ones, when the city goes dark and you’re adrift and can’t contact anyone, you naturally, seamlessly gravitate back toward. The ones who take you in and hand you a drink and ask you how your sister’s doing. The ones who tell the same jokes over and over. The ones who can’t keep a relationship going and can’t figure out why, even when it’s obvious to everyone else. The ones who are always there. They are your family. There’s no other word for it.

Look at that friend you emailed or texted just now. What connects you with that person? How’d you meet them? What keeps you two connected? Do you even think about it? Do you even need to? It’s as natural as breathing, the background static that we don’t notice but keeps the phones working, the lines open, the trains running on time. Without them, we are vapour, wisps, a record with no needle. They make what we’re doing matter. They are more than a crutch; they are our very spine.

Several years ago, I spent some time in Miami with two old, old friends who had just got engaged. My then girlfriend accompanied me, and I did what I could to describe her beforehand, what she liked, what mattered to her, why I liked her… what they should expect, essentially. We spent the weekend, and she left a day before I did, leaving the three of us with one last night.

That night, we bought four bottles of wine, turned on some music and had our post-match report. They know me as well as anyone does; they know where all the bodies are buried, better than I do, really. They compared and contrasted her with women in my past, placed her in a certain context, pointed out how I had changed over the years, why they liked her, why I looked happier than I’ve looked in a while, and then off we went. We told old stories, sure, but it was not merely wistful reminiscence. They’re as current as they’ve ever been. They know me the way I know them; from a genuine, kind place that just can’t wait to see what will happen next. It was our story, and we were telling it. We were getting it wrong in places, we were jumping to conclusions, we were exaggerating details for our own amusement… and we smiled and laughed and felt eternally at home. Which is where we were. Which is where we are.

It is a treasure to have all these people in my life, both old and new. I am so lucky. Allow me this moment to tell them: Thank you.

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Game on!

There was chaos at the small flat just off the corner of Brighton Road and Lansdowne Road in Surrey the other night, and the people causing the ruckus were lucky nobody called the police.

If you stood outside the door, or in the hall of the floor below, or even out on the street, you could hear them. At first it seemed like they were laughing and having fun, talking shit to each other, being jestingly competitive. But then it escalated. The couple’s voices started rising. Then they were screaming. You heard stuff being thrown across the room. You heard the dog howling for quiet. The floor shook as they jumped up and down.

It all ended with a loud, violent “MotherFUCKER!” and a piercing wail of “You know what? Fuck this stupid game! I’m sick of it!” Then another loud bang. There was no weeping, not yet anyway, but the pain was evident. This couple was ruthless, vile, twisted. Whatever mess they were in, they were in it deep.

Mercifully, the neighbour decided she couldn’t take this anymore, not when it was already after midnight, no way. She walked across the hall and rang the doorbell, nervous that she was about to become a witness to some gruesome bloodbath, but still undeniably (and understandably) irritated. Someone had to say something. People were trying to sleep, you know.

My mate Richard opened the door. “Oh, shit, ma’am, I’m so sorry,” he said in his best oh-so-polite voice. “We were just playing a game in here, and it was a really close game, and we got a little carried away. I’m sorry, sorry. Won’t happen again.” I was glad he answered the door (upon hearing the doorbell, I immediately hid under the bed); I was still too fired up to carry on a normal conversation, particularly one in which I needed to look remorseful.

He closed the door, I crawled out from under the bed and we met at the sofa. “Shit, we were kind of loud, eh?” I said.

“Yep.”

“Maybe we should try to keep it down?”

“Might be a good idea.”

“Well, I don’t care how good he is, it’s just … there’s no way Messi should be getting four straight goals with Vidic right in his face. No fucking way!”

“What can I say? Leo’s the man!”

And then we sat back down, took the PlayStation off pause and proceeded to have Richard’s Barcelona team wipe the floor with my Manchester United Red Devils. Then we made a note of the score, and played again. Quieter this time.

Readers, you shall be the first to whom I admit it: I am a recovering video game addict, specifically a recovering EA Sports FIFA addict. I have successfully and steadfastly resisted buying a PlayStation, X-Box, Wii or anything like that and I’m quite proud of myself. I have even weaned myself off pretty much all the various video games on which I wasted so much of my youth. But when I visit any friend who has FIFA, it can still be a real problem. I try to drink, talk, read, write, ponder, mull, pontificate, masticate, abdicate, but I always end up in front of the TV with the damn game machine on.

It’s all Richard’s fault. We used to be neighbours when I lived in Surrey and we initially bonded over our support for Manchester United, in real life and on the PlayStation. Of course, back then we lived about 10 feet away from each other, as opposed to over 10 miles now. So it was out of control. We spent almost every waking moment when we were home at the same time, and there wasn’t a live game on that we could watch down at the pub, with the damn PlayStation on. We even spent many Saturday nights just sitting there, listening to music and playing until 3 a.m. We were lucky enough to never be interrupted by girls calling.

I’d always been inclined to this kind of addiction. My parents wanted their son to have a well-rounded growing-up experience, so they held off buying me a Nintendo. This just meant I would find kids in the neighbourhood, usually younger and more easily pushed around, who had one, and I’d commandeer it to play Pac Man, Frogger or Metroid… or Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out. Later on, I spent a lot of time after school, and a lot of my allowance, in video game arcades, playing all manner of shoot-’em-up, martial arts and car racing games. In the past, I have also have been taken in by trivia games, ranging from the high-tech (those bars that have those interactive games where you compete against fellow drunks) to the just plain nerdy (those insert-a-quarter contraptions you find next to the dart board at hole-in-the-wall dives).

In fact, it’s kind of funny how the games and my drinking went hand-in-hand. Last week, my mate Matt and I decided to grab a drink and get caught up on matters. We ended up at this sports bar, which, lo and behold, was running a World-Cup style PlayStation FIFA tournament where you could battle it out with fellow patrons over vodka and tonics. We sat there for about three hours, drinking and playing, before being eliminated in the second round. All the while, the sun shined vibrantly outside.

Rich and I, as you’ve probably gathered, can be intensely competitive in our showdowns. In fact, to be entirely honest, I’m quite likely to be heading off to Surrey next weekend to fire it up again. And the trash-talking shall ensue: “Oooh! Look at that shot, bitch! You like that? Do you? You want some more? Yeah, take that, I’ll give you some more! Who’s my little bitch now?”

I’m sure there’s no way anyone overhearing us in the hall would draw any wrong conclusions.

Anything is possible

After my post of March 13 (Making magic), a friend reminded me of this piece I wrote about a year ago, before the inception of the Journeys Into The Night blog. Thought I’d post it here as a sort of companion piece.

 

The lanky teenager takes a step to the right, fakes left, pivots, swings his leg and kicks the ball.

It makes a long, slow arc through the air, its sweep so beautiful, so graceful, a mathematician might take pleasure in graphing it.

His track suit bottoms slung low on his hips, the boy stands frozen for an instant, arms slightly raised, his head bending forward as if to will the ball on to its target.

For a split second, he looks almost like a worshipper in the act of obeisance.

And still the ball flies.

A lone car passes by as the dusk of the evening deepens. Across the street, a woman pushes a pram. Somewhere in the distance a siren wails.

The football hits the inside of the post, drops, and rolls along the goal line. The teen holds his breath. With almost a sigh, the ball kisses the net on the other side as it goes over the line.

“Yesssss!” the boy says quietly, punching the air. He runs forward, grabs the ball and dribbles it back to the half-line.

Suddenly he is not just this boy, but several dozen others in various neighborhoods pulled to football pitches all over the country for a kickabout. They watch their idols on television, then slink silently off, a ball under one arm, to mimic them. It’s their own version of footie fever.

I watch from a distance as he continues playing, whirling and feinting and dribbling around players only he can see, practicing free kicks from outside the box. He’s quick on his feet. A row of houses behind him watches, but silently.

Only later do I learn that he’s a ninth-year student who also likes bikes, dance music and Sprite. He plays for his school team. He’s crazy about football, a fact that goes without saying.

His parents want him to be an engineer or computer programmer, but he wants to play football professionally, and why not? he asks. “I’m already quite good at my age,” he adds matter-of-factly. Well, sort of.

Nothing wrong with dreaming, though. Dream on. At 14, your whole life is ahead of you.

Sadly, of course, the odds are against him, which is a shame to even think, because he looks so earnest. Unless he’s a Beckham or a Rooney or Gerrard, chances are he’ll awaken someday and it won’t have happened. That’s the experience most have.

I remember how the obvious struck around my 30th birthday. Wow, I thought, or something like that. A lot of options are now closed to me.

Where anything once was possible, I knew I’d never be a professional athlete or play for Manchester United or be a famous actor. I had never pursued any of those things, you understand. Yet up until a certain age, anything seems possible. Anything.

Right now, out on a vacant playground, this kid is a football star. He plays for his team, Tottenham Hotspurs. He goes on runs down the wing just like Aaron Lennon.

He sweats a lot. His biceps bulge. He has tattoos all over his body. In his mind, I mean.

And so he spins and shoots and scores, visions of Tottenham fresh in his memory. England is next. Like any decent Spurs fan, he despises Arsenal and Chelsea and wishes he could be at White Hart Lane on Wednesday cheering on his team and waving two fingers at the opposing Gunners – but he doesn’t have tickets.

And so he plays. He misses a cross, attempts a back-heel pass. Takes a few throws. His legs are as skinny as Q-tips, but out here they are powerful. He goes up against players like John Terry and Rio Ferdinand.

Yeah! A hattrick! The World Cup beckons!

Anything is possible. Anything.

 

Dreams do come true if you keep believing in yourself. Anything is possible. – Jennifer Capriati