The Soccer Experiment

The idea was to conduct a little sociological experiment: to see if I could get a bunch of guys over on a Sunday morning to watch football. Not much of an experiment you say? Well, I meant football as in what only we here in the USA insist on calling soccer, and women’s soccer to boot (so to speak).

So, the question was, would a bunch of hairy-knuckled males give up their Football Sunday in order to watch women play soccer, and would the game maintain the guys’ interest beyond the initial fetishistic fun of watching healthy, spirited, attractive, aggressive, determined, accomplished, confident, prone-to-stripping-off-their-tops-after-a-big-goal . . . er, excuse me . . . strong women do battle in shorts?

Why did I care? I count myself among the seven people nationwide who regularly watched the just-gone-down-the-tubes WUSA soccer league matches on KPAX. Like a lot of “tween” girls, I too fell in love with the American women during their 1999 World Cup win — and it wasn’t because of spunky defender Brandi Chastain tearing off her shirt after the winning penalty against China. Rather, it was the unabashed joy the team showed with each other and with their opponents — a sisterhood spirit that stood in sharp contrast to the grossly commercial, me-first and sometimes mean-spirited tone of men’s professional sports, and especially of our embarrassingly triumphal Olympic Dream Teams.

But these women playing on Sunday — among them the “famous five” of Chastain, Julie Foudy, Mia Hamm, Joy Fawcett and Kristine Lilly, who have all been on the national team since it won the world’s first women’s World Cup in 1991, and who followed that with an Olympic gold in ’96, the ’99 World Cup and an Olympic silver medal in 2000 — are different. They’re aggressive, but unselfish. Fierce, but fair. Watching them in a tune-up game a couple weeks ago against overmatched Mexico, I saw one of the USA players do something remarkable. With her team on the attack, she purposely put the ball out of bounds to allow a shaken-up Mexican player time to recover.

The women’s national soccer team also happens to be one of the best teams in the history of international sports. Their record speaks for itself, but watching them play in person a few weeks ago at the fantastic Home Depot Center in Carson (site of the Women’s World Cup finals and third-place match on October 11 and 12), I got a taste of just how creative and daring they really are. Our pitiable men’s national soccer team should be made to watch every game for homework.

I can’t make that happen, but the opening weekend of the 2003 Women’s World Cup, mere days after my beloved women’s pro soccer league lost its financial backers and shut down, seemed like the right occasion to drum up some male support for the sport.

It didn’t hurt my cause that on Sunday the favored Team USA was slated to play Sweden, no slouch in the field. Plus, the Teutonic Swedes favor wearing their hair in pigtails making them look like a gang of Silver Lake punk-rock girls, only with tone, tan and cleats.

A problem confronting the experiment, though, was the game time: 9:30 a.m. It’s one thing to ask your friends to give up Football Sunday to watch women’s soccer; it’s another thing to ask them to do it before 10 a.m. Clearly, doughnuts were called for. My always-game wife and I bought 29 of them. Plus six cinnamon rolls, 32 eggs, 18 sausage links of various persuasions (grilled on the Weber), vats of coffee, and a hill of fruit salad with optional vanilla yogurt topping.

In the advanced stages of seasonal tuberculosis, I was already flying on Benadryl, coffee and glazed doughnuts by the time the first guest arrived — 10 minutes late. More people came, and to my surprise a good number of the invitees were sitting in front of the television as the match got under way, plates full of eggs, sausages and doughnuts. The first 10 minutes went a bit slowly — the players seemed sluggish. I worried that the assembled would start calling for the Jets game. But then, relentless 5’11” forward Abby Wambach got the ball on the sideline, deftly dribbled around her defender and left the ball for Hamm in perfect scoring position. Instead of taking the shot, though, Hamm touched it on for a charging Kristine Lilly (the team’s best player) who slammed the ball into the upper left corner. It was beautiful.

“So, what do you think of this little social experiment?” I asked one of the guys after the goal.

“What’s the experiment?”

“Watching women’s soccer on Football Sunday.”

“Dude, you have a mountain of doughnuts out there. That kind of screws the test, doesn’t it?”

Hmm. Right. Even so, it was still interesting that these men — writers and impractical dreamers, almost all at a loss with a screwdriver — were gathered around the TV watching these gnarly women play soccer on Football Sunday while their girlfriend and wives, all good with drills and also the primary breadwinners, chatted in the other rooms.

Sweden scored a goal and made a bit of a game of it and the results might have been different if not for the brilliant goalkeeping of Brianna Scurry. In the end the USA prevailed 3 to 1, picking up three points in the tournament.

Later, I asked my wife if she thought the experiment was a success.

“I thought it was just a good excuse to have people over and eat doughnuts. Lots of doughnuts.”

—Joe Donnelly

Don’t You Get It?

At Irvine’s Verizon Wireless Amphitheater (VWA), where Neil Young brought his Greendale show Saturday night, a beer costs $10. You cannot buy a bag of popcorn without sugar on it. And patrons are constantly surveilled by security workers who cannot remember that you passed them two minutes earlier. In the lobby, where Del Taco competes with Bavarian Nuts in this broad-spectrum bilking of the music fan, there is a cardboard mockup of a Hummer, the vehicle inspired by “Operation Desert Storm” in the early ’90s and popularized by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who owns five. Tonight, some lucky concert-goer who filled out the form and dropped it in the box will win the transportation vehicle that, according to one local dealer, gets about 8 to 10 miles per gallon.

This might all be business as usual in a nation where we seem to be living in a heightened state of what playwright Arthur Miller called “internal denial” — consider the man-on-the-street interviewers who nearly always find people who support Bush’s Iraq policy even when facts line up against it. But the Greendale Tour is supposed to be a theatrical rock & roll show at least nominally about civil liberties and environmentalism — or, at least, that’s what I gather from its persistent references to the Patriot Act, as well as its closing line, “Save the Planet for Another Day!” It must have been a strange enough show when it played the Greek last July; nothing trips the cornball switch faster than lip-synching actors miming activity on an Our Town set accompanied by chords so soporific they make “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” sound complex by contrast. But here at Irvine’s VWA, Greendale is worse than merely weird. When, midway through the show, a billboard pops up onstage bearing the brand “Clear Channel” and the words “Support Our War,” enthusiastic cheers erupt from the crowd, and Greendale becomes a metaphor for all that’s wrong with America.

Leaving aside the twisted little irony that Clear Channel is actually sponsoring this concert, scarcely anyone in the audience seems to understand that Neil Young is not actually shilling for Bush’s war. Not since Springsteen has an artist been so misunderstood; not since Leni Riefenstahl has the artist been so securely to blame for the misunderstanding. “You can respond to this however you want,” Young says, pointing to the billboard. Chants of “USA! USA!” easily trump a smattering of hisses. Politics have been reduced to fashionable sloganeering, and nobody’s getting the joke.

It’s possible that Neil Young doesn’t really care whether his audience gets his point; it’s possible that he knows nothing of the Hummer contest in the lobby; it’s possible that he means for the flag-waving at the end of the Greendale portion of the show to suggest that peace is patriotic. It’s also possible that the jab at Clear Channel is a noble gesture on Young’s part — a corporation might be footing the bill, but damn if he’ll be censored. But it’s just as possible that Young’s politics, like most of the country’s, are as incoherent as Greendale’s plotline, which somehow involves aging flower children and a man named Jed who shoots a cop. This is, after all, the supposedly unrepentant hippie who supported Reagan through the ’80s. He has sprinkled Greendale’s lyrics recklessly with calls to activism, but they’re all a little soggy: Chained to the golden eagle in the atrium of “Power Co.,” protagonist Sun Green, the young daughter of Greendale’s Green Family (tell me this show wasn’t dreamed up on weed; I won’t believe you), shouts to the corporate throng below. “When the city is plunged into darkness,” she declares, “by an unpredicted rolling blackout/The White House always blames the governor/Saying the solution is to vote him out.” Yes, Neil, those direct-action anarchists are really coming out against that recall!

It’s true, I walk around a lot looking at polls and glancing at CNN, shouting, “People! Don’t you get it?” But Greendale at the VWA made me fear deeply for our collective souls. We are fast becoming the people for whom Miller wrote The Crucible — the Germans who mutter, “Well, they must have done something,” as they witness innocents being carted off to death camps; the folks who refuse to understand that our dependence on oil has enabled a band of entitled brigands to embezzle our country’s resources for the sake of their own financial empires. We cannot connect our own dots, even when we’re nearly blinded by them. But who can blame us? The cultural icon who once wrote an unparalleled lament for peace and civil liberties in 53 perfect words, “Ohio,” no longer bothers to notice that a weapon of environmental destruction is being peddled in the lobby of the same venue in which he’s urging his fans to save the planet. So how can his fans be expected to grasp the notion that he thinks indiscriminate logging is bad? Or does he?

—Judith Lewis

Southern Discomfort?

I am at the Gay & Lesbian Center in Hollywood for a reading because I grew up with the featured author, John Rowell, in the small Southern city that he writes about. I want to hear of places and people I know. I want to know, too, if I am in the book.

For Rowell, who now lives in New York, his first book, The Music of Your Life, is more than just a literary coming out. He told his parents that he’s gay not long before handing them the volume of seven short stories. The first story, from which the book gets its title, weaves a semiautobiographical account of Rowell as an out-of-place 10-year-old in Fayetteville, North Carolina, where we were both raised. As I settle into my chair, I know the hometownies could be in for a rough rhetorical ride in Rowell’s account.

To be sure, Fayetteville has odd charms and notables. Babe Ruth hit his first professional home run there as a minor-leaguer. The Putt Putt miniature-golf chain began within its environs. And a doctor/soldier named Jeffrey McDonald murdered his family there. (McDonald’s slain daughters had taken ballet from my mother.)

The city’s two-block red-light district — Hay Street — is known worldwide among vets once stationed at the nearby base. (It’s now been replaced by a museum.) The Army connection also brought in restaurants with Vietnamese, Japanese and German dishes.

But to the 10-year-old in Rowell’s story, the place was all South. And this brilliant boy who liked Doris Day and The Lawrence Welk Show — and who hummed show tunes while stranded in right field during P.E. — was a perpetual playground target.

I don’t have to imagineer this playground. I used to get to it by trundling uphill through the woods behind my house. As Rowell reads, in a theater-trained, warmly embracing voice, I experience both his crafted words, which fairly burst with unrequited longing, and the accompanying stir of my recollection. At times, I lose knowing contact with my third-row seat; it’s all I can do to let his words paint the scene rather than my memories.

I have to tell myself that I would never have been one of the bullies who beat the protagonist. I hope, too, that I was not like Eric, who kept his distance rather than lose newfound favor with the jocks. But I well remember that, even in college, I could still pull out a faggot joke as needed, just to show I was cool. And years ago, it threw me to first learn that close high school friends are gay.

I’m not in the book, but hearing John read, I feel guilt at my own acquiescence within that Southern town, with its knee-jerk ostracism. How much of that intolerant soil is rooted to that place or even rooted within me? And how different is the heart of Los Angeles, a place where the next evening, a Dodgers fan will shoot to death a Giants fan after trading insults?

That same week, I’m driving my two daughters and their friend to karate. Out of the blue, my 10-year-old asks her friend: “What do you think about gay people?”

Her friend doesn’t know what Rebekah means by “gay.” Rebekah explains it’s when boys like boys and girls like girls, and that people in some places think that gay people should be killed.

Her friend says being gay sounds “crazy” and that no one should be killed, but maybe they should get “brain surgery or something like that.”

I’m not sure where this is going, though I notice my fingers tensing around the steering wheel. Then I understand that Rebekah is testing her friend — or training her. “It doesn’t make any difference if people happen to like someone of the same gender,” she says assertively. “I have all kinds of people as my friends.”

This now makes perfect sense to Rebekah’s schoolmate. The discussion veers to technical issues, such as the use of “fertilizer” to help a woman have a child with no man involved. Six-year-old Hannah gets so bored by the discussion of “gray people,” as she later explains, that she concentrates instead on drawing rainbows in her notebook.

Yes, I think, these are children of Los Angeles, a different place after all from my Fayetteville of years ago.

—Howard Blume

John Rowell will be reading from The Music of Your Life on Thursday, September 25, 7 p.m., at Dutton’s Bookstore, 11975 San Vincente Blvd., Brentwood.