Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Why Don't You Get A Job (From The Cheesecake Truck To The End Of The Line, 12)

Just before I got married to Sweetie, I made a mixtape to take on our honeymoon road trip to New York. The other day, I found that tape and decided to tell the story of our honeymoon through the songs on that tape. This is part 12; click here for the Table of Contents.

"Well I guess it ain't easy doing nothing at all..."

You may wonder how the song Why Don't You Get A Job ends up on a supposed-to-be-romantic mixtape intended to be played as Sweetie and I drove from Madison, Wisconsin, to New York City and back.

There's a good reason: It's because that was the song for a summer one year.

Every summer, I have a song that somehow ends up defining my summer in one way or another. In the summer of 2009, it was Mary's Market,

A song that picked me out for that summer because it had a wistful, timeless quality that made me forget how often I was sitting in traffic on my way to or from the office, instead of wading through a river with the Babies!, or walking through the park with Sweetie, or just relaxing on the couch while the sun set and the cardinals jumped around the lilac bushes outside our dining room.

Earlier summer songs include Tubthumping, by Chumbawamba, and the song Underdog, by Spoon, a song I listened to incessantly one summer while preparing for what was, and still is, the biggest trial of my life, a trial I won, thankfully, because if you link a song that you love to something that becomes disappointing, you're going to hate that song thereafter.

(I know that because it's happened to me on other occasions: There's one song that I listened to over and over while getting ready for a trial I lost, and I can't stand to listen to that song anymore, even years later.)

On the other hand, if you take a song that otherwise doesn't have anything to do with anything in your life, and doesn't mean much of anything to you, period, and link it with something fun in your life, that song will then take on its own personal meaning for you and become imbued with sentiment, and some songs that made it onto the mixtape for my honeymoon, including Why Don't You Get A Job, are those kinds of songs.

Why Don't You Get A Job was released in November, but it ended up being a big hit on the radio just in time for me to start to like it in the summer after it came out. This was just after Sweetie and I had first started dating. I had grown to like the song because I heard it on the radio -- I'm always a few months behind on things like that, and having started liking it, I ultimately got The Offspring's album, with that song on it, in time for the summer, the result being that I listened to that tape all the time, heading to or from work at my law practice, a practice I'd started up only the year before and which was not doing all that well, although it was doing well enough that I was able to support myself and pay my rent, sometimes doing both in the same month.

(I think, looking back, that I must have gotten the cassette itself from Sweetie, since at that time I was very very poor. I was still living off of some savings I'd had from when a drunk driver hit me and broke my neck, ultimately ending up with me getting a small settlement that I hoarded carefully, and at the time I was working in a startup law practice that had, as its primary business model, not getting paid. My budget in those days barely allowed for groceries, and certainly didn't allow for luxuries like cassette tapes. Back then, I tended to bootleg my songs off of the radio, leaving a blank cassette in the stereo as I listened while studying or hanging out, and when a song came on, I'd hit record and get that song. Mixtapes from that stage of my life -- I still have most of them -- have a lot of DJ intros to songs, or songs that start 3 or 4 seconds into them. So the fact that I had the album itself tells me that in all likelihood, Sweetie bought that tape for me.)

The album itself wasn't great: It had two good songs on it, one of which was Why Don't You Get A Job, which I liked because it was funny and vaguely reggae-ish in nature. I'm not generally a fan of reggae music; as far as I'm concerned, a little bit of reggae goes a long way, and about 1 minute into a reggae song I'm already bored with it. (I shouldn't even, really, distinguish between one reggae song and another, since each reggae song sounds exactly like all other reggae songs, the beats and instruments and music and singing and choruses all blending seamlessly into each other in a tiresome, bland, boring way. So I should just say the reggae song bores me.)

But I liked Why Don't You Get A Job because it wasn't quite reggae, so I listened to it a lot and sang along with it and enjoyed it, and that song became associated with that summer, the summer of '99, a summer in which what I was doing, mostly, was trying to get my law practice going, trying to keep going for planning my wedding to Sweetie (she was doing the planning; I was doing the "trying to keep costs down without wrecking the entire process"), and playing softball on a team I'd set up, a co-ed softball team that turned out to be more of a headache than I ever could have imagined.

I'd wanted to play softball because I thought it could be a fun thing for Sweetie and I to do, and using my new law practice, I could pay for the uniforms -- shirts that said Pagel Law Office and had a little shark symbol on them -- and write it off as an advertising expense.

I unfortunately was not entirely clear on what writing things off really meant, resulting in a rather large tax liability when I would file my taxes for the first full year of running my office. But, luckily, I also did not pay the full load for the shirts, as I got contributions from teammates to cover the cost of the team and the shirts. It ended up costing me about $50, total, for the whole thing.

$50 and my sanity, for a big part of the summer, as the team that I'd put together was filled with a lot of boyfriends who'd talked their girlfriends into playing, girlfriends who weren't actually all that motivated to play softball. The guys on the team, too, were not exactly gung-ho about showing up, since games were on Fridays and many times the guys wanted to keep their options open: if something better was going on, they wanted to be able to go do that, but if they had nothing better to do they'd come play softball.

The trouble was, I had to set up a roster and be ready to play, and we had 15 people for a 10-person team. So I told people, up front, that if they would commit to being there on a Friday, they'd be a starter. If they weren't sure they could make it, they'd be a backup. That policy immediately got me about 10 phone calls per week, leaving messages that said, more or less: "I'm not sure I can make it Friday. I'm pretty sure I can make it but not 100% sure, but since I think I'm going to make it, don't make me a backup on the roster because if you do then I may not come, but if I'm a starter I'll probably come."

That's what happens when you put lawyers on a sports team.

To fill in the gaps and make sure I had people to play, I also invited my brothers, who lived in Milwaukee, to be on the team. They agreed to be on the team -- but both were unable to drive, regularly, at the time, since both were habitually in trouble with the law, in more- and less-serious ways, but ways that regardless of their seriousness inevitably involved having their drivers' licenses suspended and being prohibited from driving. That never stopped them from driving... except on Friday nights, when they'd opt to obey the law (or that law, anyway) and ask me to come pick them up and bring them to the game, in Madison, and then take them back home.

It's a sign of just what a sucker/nice guy I was, and just how much I needed people to field a softball team, and just how little real work I had to do at the time, that I inevitably agreed to drive to Milwaukee, pick up one or both of my brothers, bring them to the game in Madison, and then drive them back home.

That was how I spent my summer: trying to find a way to get paid for doing my job, wrangling softball rosters, driving to Milwaukee and back a lot, and, in between times, spending as much time as possible with Sweetie, including time on the softball field, where Sweetie played catcher and where she made one of the most phenomenal plays anyone ever made in a softball game -- especially in one of our softball games, where "good plays" were scarce and losses were frequent. (We lost one game 35-6, after having jumped out to a 6-0 lead.)

Sweetie, in the phenomenal play, was at home plate, and a long ball was hit out to the outfield, deep center field. That wasn't anything unusual: Long balls were always being hit out there, because our pitcher, Jeff, wasn't a very good pitcher at all. He wanted to play pitcher, and I didn't want to discourage people or have them quit the team, so I let him play pitcher, a position Jeff played with a glove on one hand, a cigarette in his mouth, and a beer on the mound.

On this particular long ball, Jason was playing centerfield. Jason was the only real athlete on our team, or one of two, maybe, but he was the best on our team. Jason was like a major leaguer, as far as we were concerned, and he played centerfield because he could, in that position, really play the entire outfield.

(I played first base, because I was left-handed, and sometimes I played right field, a position I'm not really suited to play because I don't have a strong or accurate throwing arm, and because I have lazy eye, which means I don't really have very good depth perception which means I have a lot of trouble fielding fly balls. But I had to play somewhere, and Sweetie had taken catcher.)

On this particular long ball to center, there was a runner on second, and as the ball flew out and Jason got under it, we realized that Jason would easily make the catch. (Jason easily made every catch). Once he did make the catch, the runner took off, tagging up and heading for home. Jason reared back with his major-league throw and hurled the ball at Sweetie, who by then was standing on home plate (as I'd taught her), holding up her glove, in the way of the runner who was rounding third.

The runner tore home and the ball rocketed into Sweetie, who had every reason to have dropped it or stepped off the plate or otherwise blown the play. We were down by 20 points, or more, at that time, so it didn't really matter, anyway -- but Sweetie stood firm, and the ball hit her glove at Warp 9, just as the runner got home and ran into Sweetie, who tagged him out and saved the run and didn't drop the ball. We all cheered, not because we'd lose by one less run but because it was an amazing play. It would have been a great play for anyone -- but Sweetie had never played baseball of any sort before this summer, and this was one of the first few games, making it extra great.

That play, and Sweetie herself, were so memorable that years later, when Sweetie accompanied me to Chicago to watch me argue a case, she was remembered for it. We were walking down a busy street in Chicago, my mind on my case and Sweetie's mind on whatever it was she thinks about when I'm distracted, which is all the time, when I heard someone call her name. A guy came walking up to us, a guy I didn't recognize at all, and he didn't say anything to me, but talked to Sweetie, who said "Jason!" and reminded me who this guy was -- about six years after the softball team disbanded. This guy, Jason, didn't look as though he remembered me at all -- but he'd picked Sweetie out of a crowd, in Chicago, during rush hour.

That's what I choose to remember about the song Why Don't You Get A Job: not the fact that I was too poor to buy the album, not the fact that I was constantly hassled by friends and family who made it unreasonably difficult to simply get together and play softball, not the fact that we lost almost every game and lost badly. Not even the fact that ultimately my business venture folded ignominiously and I never got that tax writeoff.

Instead, I listen to that song and I remember standing in right field, watching Sweetie take her place at home plate, and hold her glove up, and that ball zoom in there faster than I could barely follow, holding my breath as the runner and the ball arrived and Sweetie grabbed the ball, made the catch, tagged the runner out, and got a hearty round of cheers from the team, a small celebration of a small victory that meant nothing in the game but meant everything to Sweetie and to me because of that.

That's why I put that song on the tape to listen to as we drove on our honeymoon: because it reminded me that even amidst all the troubles of life, Sweetie was a bright spot, standing tough and hanging in there.

For me.

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