Thursday, December 18, 2014

When I Was 44, It Was a Very Bad Year


When he was 49, Frank Sinatra recorded "It Was a Very Good Year." In it, he sang words not written by or for him, telling of the "very good years" when he was 17, 21 and 35, and how they compared to now, when "I'm in the autumn of the year."

In his case, since, like me, he was born in a December, those years would have been 1933, 1937 and 1951. In 1933, he left high school in Hoboken, New Jersey without graduating. In 1937, he was a singing waiter; whatever he learned on that job, it would be 2 more years before he was any kind of success. And in 1951, after having been one of the biggest stars in music on planet Earth in the preceding 10 years, his career was in a downturn. Like Elvis Presley for most of the 1960s, he was in a rut where his teenage fans had grown up and moved on, and he hadn't been able to bring them back with more mature recordings; nor had he yet hooked a new generation of fans. Like Elvis, he would eventually solve these problems (with, like Elvis, significant help from his Las Vegas performances). His personal life was also a mess: He divorced his first wife Nancy Barbato, and married actress Ava Gardner; while many say she was the true love of his life, and she of his, it was a disaster.

But then, he was a great actor as well as a great singer: Listening to him sing that song, it's easy to believe that, for him, they actually were very good years.

*

As for myself?

When I was 17, it was a very good year -- for 11 months. I won't get into it here, but the last month of that year contained events that sent my life into a tailspin, and are still having repercussions for me.

When I was 21, it was a very bad year. It had its good moments, but, for the most part, I felt completely lost and absolutely miserable.

When I was 35, it was a pretty good year -- again, toward the end. I was probably better off then than I've ever been.

You'll notice that I haven't mentioned sports yet, in any overt form. The truth is, some years that were good for me in sports were bad for me in life, and vice versa.

This year was bad for both.

The Yankees missed the Playoffs, going through another injury-wracked season and losing the retiring Derek Jeter. The Devils missed the Playoffs in the 2013-14 season, not lifting a finger to keep Martin Brodeur, and look even worse in the 2014-15 season now underway. Indeed, most of the New York Tri-State Area teams stink now. The Giants and Jets are horrible, and both look like they're about to fire their head coaches, and their general managers are on hot seats as well. The Knicks and Nets are also bad; a combined New York team might make the Playoffs only because the NBA Eastern Conference is currently so weak. The Islanders have become a Playoff team again, but anybody who thinks they're a genuine Stanley Cup contender is rather premature.

The only Tri-State Area team that did well is the one I absolutely despise, the Rangers, which, for me, counts as a serious rubbing-in. And even they, once they got to their sport's Finals, got embarrassed, in a way no area team has been embarrassed in its Finals since the then-New Jersey Nets got swept by the Los Angeles Lakers in 2002.

Rutgers finished with a winning record and a bowl berth, but, victims of their own "success" in the Greg Schiano years, those achievements are no longer enough; and their first season in the Big Ten Conference was rough.

East Brunswick High School, my alma mater, had one of its best years in boys basketball, and continued to do well in both boys and girls soccer, and even (in the calendar year) made the State Playoffs in football -- on a technicality, because the Sayreville hazing sandal forced that school to cancel its season, resulting in the forfeiture of all remaining games, including one against E.B. We made the Playoffs with a 4-4 record, lost in the first round (the quarterfinals), and got our usual Thanksgiving Day pounding from our arch-rivals, Old Bridge.

*

And that was just the sports stuff. Real life was harder.

Late last year, I lost my job of 7 years. Most likely, things would have come to a head between myself and my boss between then and now anyway. You've no doubt seen signs saying, "Rule #1: The Boss is always right. Rule #2: If the Boss is wrong, see Rule #1." Well, where I worked, the boss was getting more and more wrong all the time.

It would have been very, very easy for him to solve the immediate problem between us. He chose to ignore it. And the next time we saw each other -- it had gotten to the point where he was rarely in he office where I worked, which was one of the main problems -- he decided to let me have it. He accused me of something which wasn't true, and threatened to prove it to me. I knew I had him: I called his bluff, and told him to go ahead and prove it, because I knew he couldn't.

And faster than the Bush Administration pivoted from focusing on Osama bin Laden to focusing on Saddam Hussein, he went from a look of "Uh-oh, he's got me" to changing the subject. He told me that I was showing him tremendous disrespect. I told him he deserved it, because he had no respect for his employees, whom he grossly underpaid and piled on ridiculous assignments that never got finished because of the new things he assigned us. So he wrote out a check and paid me the money he owed me since he last paid me, and sent me home. I've never spoken to him again, even on the phone. Nor do I wish to.

And I've been unemployed ever since. Over a year. I've gotten plenty of job interviews, but they've almost all been from companies whose human resources managers have misread my resume, thinking that I'm a marketing person. I am not. By far, my best experience has been clerical work. My sales experience, from trying to sell magazine subscriptions door-to-door to houses in the suburbs when I was in elementary school to trying to sell energy subscriptions door-to-door to businesses in New York City when I was in my 30s, have been complete disasters. I will never take another sales job.

This past April, shortly before my unemployment insurance ran out, I got a job. A place in Queens told me they needed someone for data entry. The location was good. The pay was good. Everything seemed great. I was so relieved.

When I showed up for work on the first day, I was shown my desk. There was no computer. There wasn't even a telephone. What was there was a headset, a telemarketer's script, and post-it notes prefabricated answers to customers' objections.

I was flat-out lied to, and the manager continued to lie right to my face, saying it was never a data entry job. I wouldn't have taken the job if I'd known it was telemarketing -- a word that she never used when she interviewed me. I think the only thing stopping me from calling her a lying bitch right to her duplicitous face was the knowledge that I would now surely be unemployed after my unemployment insurance ran out, which was now scaring the hell out of me.

So my unemployment insurance ran out. Ever since, I've been living in my parents' house, off their money, doing "odd jobs" to "earn my keep."

This is not encouraging for a 44-year-old man.

And then, my father died. There was no warning: Although he was well overweight, and had looked noticeably older in the last couple of years, he wasn't sick. Everyone who knew him was shocked.

And it was up to me to call my sister and tell her. I would have died myself to not have to make that call.

To make matters worse, her 7-year-old twin daughters had their birthday between his death and the funeral. And they'd lost their other grandfather only a year and a half earlier. And they'd lost an elderly family friend who was like a third grandfather. That's too much for a small child to bear.

And then I had to help my mother plan a funeral. And I had to write and deliver a eulogy. And it occurred to me just how little I knew of his life before I came along. Which wasn't helped by the fact that a lot of the people he knew at the time are dead now (some dying much younger than he lived to be) -- and many of those who were still alive were unable to come, due to the ailments of old age, so there wasn't much they could tell me.

My eulogy was well-received, even more so than the one I wrote and delivered for my grandmother 8 years earlier. Those 8 minutes were probably the calmest I'd been all week.

We did have a birthday celebration for the girls -- about 2 weeks later. But since the funeral was on July 3, we didn't do our usual 4th of July celebration.

Needless to say, I didn't add "master eulogist" to my resume. But I did alter it to read, "No sales or marketing jobs." Apparently, reading comprehension still isn't a requirement for being a human resources director, because the vast majority of the calls I've gotten since are still for sales and/or marketing.

At this writing, I am still unemployed.

"So, Mike," you may be thinking, "why don't you find a way to make money through your blog?" I did think of that. I followed Blogger.com's instructions on how to do that. All that did was put ads on my blog, mainly for companies I've never heard of, selling things I would never use. I haven't seen a penny as a result of this.

And, as I write this, I've got an infected tooth. For 3 nights, I was in miserable pain, before I could finally get an appointment. I was told the infection had to be reduced before it came out. So the tooth is still in. It will (presumably) come out on Monday, so, while I've still got it on my birthday, it will be out before Christmas Eve.

And, of course, since I can't afford insurance -- don't get me started on the irony of my support for Obamacare when I can't even afford that, I am a firm believer in national health insurance, and conservatives can go to hell for standing in its way -- my mother is paying for the extensive dental work I need. (Fortunately, she sold my father's SUV, so that's an extra $500 a month she now has, and she's now getting his pension, which was greater than her own.)

*

So what good things happened in my 45th year on Earth? Well, at the end of it, I finally got a workable plan for getting my teeth fixed. That, alone, should help me in my job search: At least, once I get a particular tooth fixed, I won't be reluctant to smile anymore.

The family did get to have one last nice trip together before my father died, a day-trip to Philadelphia: Myself, my parents, my sister and her husband, and her girls.

Thanksgiving was expected to be difficult, since my sister was going to go to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, leaving my mother and me as the only family left. Although our relationship has improved, it would still have been incredibly awkward. My sister suggested that the two of us also go down. I visited Myrtle Beach in 1993. It's not like a Jersey Shore town. It's like Ocean City, Maryland, only tackier and redneckier. And when I told Mom how far it was, and that Amtrak doesn't go there, and she'd have to drive all the way down and all the way back (since I can't drive), she put the kibosh on it.

So a nearby family with whom we've become new friends (because they have kids about my nieces' age) suggested an alternative: Thanksgiving weekend at a nice hotel on the beach in Cape May, at the southern tip of New Jersey. This would be a two-and-a-half-hour drive, instead of 10-and-a-half-hours (not counting rest stops). And Mom already loved Cape May, and I at least liked it. We went down there, and while we couldn't quite put all the stress of the year behind us, but I hadn't felt so relaxed since I last had my own place. And Mom and I didn't argue once over the 3 days -- that's got to be a record.

As a segue from the personal to sports, this was the year I was finally able to cement the bond with the girls over the Yankees. They were now 7, the same age I was when I first watched the Yankees TV. We watched real games together, we watched "Yankees Classics" on YES, and we watched my DVDs. They got to see that Babe Ruth wasn't just a cartoonish-looking guy in a book, he was a real person who actually did all those amazing things. They now know about Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Phil Rizzuto, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Mickey Mantle, Reggie Jackson and Derek Jeter. We even watched Joe Torre's Monument Park ceremony together.

I also showed them footage of important non-Yankee stuff, like Jackie Robinson on the basepaths and Bobby Thomson's home run and Willie Mays' catch. They know that the Dodgers and Giants used to be in New York City, but they're in California now. And they know that the Mets didn't always stink.

For me, aside from EBHS making it into the State football Playoffs through the backest of back doors, the highlight was London soccer team Arsenal finally winning another trophy after 8 years, the first since I became an Arsenal fan: The Football Association Cup, England's national tournament. It's like the NCAA Tournament, a.k.a. "March Madness": Everybody is eligible, and, theoretically, anybody can win it. Its history is full of upsets, referred to as "cup shocks" and "the magic of the FA Cup."

The difference is, the FA Cup runs all season long, concurrent with the League season. Plus, there's the League Cup, and, for some teams (including Arsenal, in the UEFA Champions League every season since 1998-99), European competition. It's possible to be going for 4 trophies at once, but Arsenal hadn't won one since the 2005 FA Cup, for various reasons.

Arsenal beat their fellow North Londoners, arch-rival Tottenham Hotspur, to begin their "cup run," then beat lower-division Coventry City, then beat both of the Merseyside teams, Liverpool and Everton. It seemed rather easy. A Semifinal against defending Champions Wigan Athletic (their win the year before was one of those legendary cup shocks) looked bad, but they came from behind and won on penalties. Finally, on May 17, at the new Wembley Stadium -- Arsenal hadn't won a Wembley Final since 1998, at the old stadium -- they came back from an early 2-0 deficit against Hull City to win in extra time (read: "overtime"), on a goal by Aaron Ramsey, 3-2.

And then, The Arsenal came to, as they would say over there, my manor. The players on their roster who had competed in the World Cup (won by German) weren't ready to play again, and were left behind; but those who hadn't, like Ramsey from Wales which didn't qualify, or who weren't selected for their national teams, like Santi Cazorla from Spain, came, took in the sights of New York, and played Arsenal's first match in North America since a 1989 trip to Miami. It was at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey, against the New York Red Bulls, featuring Arsenal legend Thierry Henry.

Incredibly -- because the tickets went on sale before my unemployment insurance ran out -- I got in. Naturally, I rooted for Arsenal, as did the vast majority of the 25,000 people on hand. (It cold have been moved to the 82,000-seat MetLife Stadium at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, and it would still have been a mostly Arsenal crowd.) After all, I hadn't been a Red Bulls fan for most of their existence. It was Arsenal who led me to my local team, not the other way around.

And, naturally, Arsenal got screwed: The Red Bulls won 1-0, partly because a perfectly legitimate goal was disallowed for offside -- a goal scored, incredibly, by Abou Diaby, the Afro-French midfielder most famous for kicking Chelsea's odious captain John Terry in the face in the 2007 League Cup Final (accidentally, of course; he's not good enough to have succeeded in doing that on purpose), and for always being injured. He's made exactly 1 appearance in the 2014-15 season, 1 the season before, and just 23 senior-level games in the last 4 seasons -- for Arsenal and France combined.

Still, if the Gooner cannot go to The Arsenal, The Arsenal finally figured out that The Arsenal must come to the Gooner. Nobody can ever again say, "You're not a real fan, you've never even seen them play in person." Now, they say, "Preseason friendlies don't count." These people are idiots. I can now say, even for the team that plays 3,500 miles from home, I've seen every team I love live.

So the year wasn't completely bad.

And it wasn't the worst year of my life. I've had much harder ones. I won't get into specifics, but my late teens, my early 20s, and my early 30s had years that made me feel as though living longer had no point to it.

But I got through them. And I got through this one.

Now, as I turn 45, I know full well that things can get worse -- or better.

I have to say, though, that things need to get much better, soon.

Because -- and the irony in my saying this is now gone -- I'm too old for this shit.

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