Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Importance of Things That Don't Matter (Nonsportsmanlike Conduct!)

Sometimes I forget what I'm wearing, and I forget, at the same time, that what I'm wearing can cause other people to react to me, so that when they do react, I have no idea what they're talking about and appear to be crazy, or rude, or both.

That's what happened to me, three times today: People reacted to what I am wearing, and I had no idea, at first, what they were reacting to, causing me to be confused and a little lost, and also, at one point, to lose my grip on Mr Bunches, who then began climbing into the sour cream display.

I'm wearing a Denver Broncos Terrell Davis jersey. You may remember Terrell Davis, or you may not. This is Terrell Davis:
He looks a little confused, doesn't he?

But you may remember him better from this angle:

He's the guy in the middle. With the ball. The little one.

That's Terrell Davis in Superbowl XKRILRBD +38°3238III, waltzing into the end zone for the winning score, the score that got me the Terrell Davis Denver Broncos jersey I'm wearing today, the one that's causing so much confusion.

When Terrell Davis scored that touchdown (causing no small amount of consternation among Packer fans, who were expecting a goal-line stand and an attempt to win the game, and who instead were shocked to see then-Coach Mike "Mike" Holmgren throw in the towel), I more or less won the jersey I'm wearing today, because that was one of the years I bet my brother Matt on the Superbowl, and I had Denver, so when they held on to win that game, I got $50 and a Denver Broncos jersey.

That game, Superbowl RIX00084+2905III, had some meaning for me, because it meant I was $50 better off in my life and had a jersey to wear for the next eleven years or so, and it meant (although I didn't know it that day) that one day I'd be walking through a grocery store on a Sunday morning, trying to get some milk and sour cream to make a Bundt cake that night, and trying also to corral two overtired 3-year-olds, and that I'd be interrupted in that by a guy who would say to me: "Hey, they gonna win?"

As he said that, and I looked up to see a guy in a New York Yankees' cap and shirt, smiling at me, and as I tried to lift Mr Bunches off of the floor while holding on to Mr F so that he didn't climb into the milk cooler, I tried to figure out who might be going to win. The Babies!? That seemed the most obvious, and maybe a joking thing from this guy: Hey, are [those Babies! you're clearly not in control of] going to win?"

But then I thought: maybe he means the Yankees? He was wearing Yankee stuff, after all, and the Yankees are playing the Angels in the American League Championship Series (a/k/a "The Neverending and Terribly Boring Story") and I've got the Angels, and The Boy has the Yankees, in our bet... but how would he know that? And, I then asked myself, why would some Yankees' fan just stop me in the dairy section to ask me if the Yankees are going to win? How rude are New Yorkers, anyway?

Then I remembered I was wearing a Broncos' jersey. Technically, at that point, I was wearing a Broncos' jersey and Mr F, who I'd picked up to keep him from getting away, as Mr Bunches had by then flopped onto the floor to frustrate my efforts to hold his hand. Mr F had responded to my picking him up by lolling over my shoulder.

The last time I was in public and someone stopped me out of the blue to comment on a shirt I was wearing, I'd had on my Florida Gators sweatshirt that I'd also won in a bet, "winning clothes in a bet" being the most common way I get my new outfits. That time, when a large man in the same grocery store had commented on my shirt by saying "Florida! Yeah! Go Gators!" and giving me the thumbs up, I'd tried to explain how I wasn't really a Florida Gators' fan, how I'd simply ended up with them as my team in a bet on the College Football national championship, and how because of that, and their winning, I then had a Florida Gators' sweatshirt... and the guy had looked confused and deflated and the conversation (which I hadn't wanted to be a part of in the first place) ended very limply and with me feeling guilty for not being a Florida Gators' fan.

So this time, I didn't wreck Yankee Fan's day, but simply said "I hope so." He looked at me and nodded and appeared to expect more, so I said "I like Kyle Orton," a strange phrase that really probably only makes sense if you know who he is, and if you like him.

He looks a little confused, too.

Kyle Orton is the Denver Broncos' new quarterback, a former Bear, who I do kind of like. I like him because I made fun of him all summer long, with The Boy, making fun of him being a bad football player for the same reason most guys make fun of "bad" football players: because we can't play football even 1/1000th as well as they do, and because they make $35 billion a second to play a game, and so they should just shut up and let us make fun of them, but then Kyle Orton began winning games (five in a row, so far) and I began actually liking Kyle Orton, and making less fun of him and being less sarcastic when I'd say things like That Kyle Orton, he's a pretty good quarterback, which I used to say with a smirk but now I say in all seriousness.

(Kyle Orton, by the way, will make $2,800,000 this year for playing a game. That's $175,000 per game, if the Broncos don't go to the playoffs [players get extra money for the playoffs], or $43,750 per quarter he'll play. $2.8 million works out, also, to $7,671 per day, or $319 per hour, every hour of every day of the year, or $5.30 per minute, every minute of every hour of every day in a year. So when the game breaks for commercials and you go get your generic soda out of the refrigerator and come and sit back down, in the time it took you to do that, Kyle Orton made $5.30. That's money that's paid for by season tickets you buy, Denver Broncos jersey I wear, and other stuff football fans spend money on. Don't tell me we don't have enough money to provide free health care to every man, woman and child in America.)

Pop quiz time. This is:

(a) The amount of money football fans spent on foam cheeseheads last year,
(b) the amount of money it would cost to pay for everyone in America to get free health care,
(c) it doesn't matter that both (a) and (b) are the correct answers, because Americans are only going to do (a), not (b), because if you say (b) then some stupid Republican is going to shout "Socialist Death Panels!" and we're all going to get scared and say there's no money for health care reform,
(d) all of the above, plus the money that was spent on pre-orders of that one book by Lauren Conrad.

I told Yankees' Fan that I liked Kyle Orton, hoping that would end the conversation, but it didn't, because Yankees' Fan went on to say something about Phillip Rivers and how good he is, about which I simply nodded because I had to go get Mr Bunches out of the sour cream bin, which ended that conversation.

From that talk, I gathered that the Broncos were going to play the Chargers, because that's who Phillip Rivers quarterbacks for, and I used that knowledge a little later when another guy in the store commented on my jersey by saying "They going to win tomorrow night?" and pointing at my chest.

Even then, I wasn't really sure what he was talking about, until I looked down and said "Oh, the Broncos," and then said "I hope so, but San Diego can be tough," and then moved on, using my new knowledge that the teams were playing on Monday Night to gloss over the fact that I didn't want to talk to that guy and wasn't really a Broncos fan.

I have to be careful about that kind of stuff, anyway. I ended up being a Buffalo Bills fan by accident, and that led to years and years of watching a team lose, of being asked Are you from Buffalo? and of being asked Did you make your wife go to Buffalo on your honeymoon just so you could see the stadium? (No, I didn't!), and that all came about unplanned. If people keep acting like I'm a Broncos fan just because I'm wearing the jersey, and I have to keep acting like I'm a Broncos fan because that's easier than explaining to them why I wear the jersey even though I'm not a Broncos fan, then I might end up accidentally liking the Broncos, after all, and I really don't think I can squeeze another thing into my life to like. I'm pretty full up, what with Sweetie and the kids and Cool Ranch chips and Glee!.

Then, at the checkout, the cashier guy, too, asked me about the Broncos, and I gave him my now-full-of-information answer: Well, I hope they'll beat San Diego on Monday night, and then wrote out the check and moved on to settle a fight between Mr F and Mr Bunches, a fight that had broken out because Mr F wanted some cheese puffs, but they weren't our cheese puffs, they were in someone else's cart, so I'd had to pull Mr F away from that cart, and he'd blamed Mr Bunches for it and tried to pull his hair.

Those three encounters got me thinking about the jersey I had on, and how maybe I could pad out those three encounters into a story that might make a larger point, and then, as I got out of my car later on at the parking garage to go into my office and "work," the parking attendant said "I sure hope they win tomorrow night" and I gave him a jaunty wave and said "Me, too! Go Kyle Orton!," adding that latter completely unsarcastically.

What I was thinking was this: First, I was thinking There sure are a lot of Denver Broncos fans in Madison, Wisconsin. Second, I was thinking Sports have zero importance overall, but they sure are important, overall.

Which makes no sense, except that it makes all the sense in the world.

Sports don't matter. They don't matter any more than any other form of entertainment matters. Sports are entertainment, and that's all. Getting all worked up over sports is fun, but needs to be kept in perspective.

People do get all worked up over sports. Watch a Packers game with The Boy and you'll see what I mean. Watching the Packers-Vikings game the other night, I saw The Boy get overwhelmed by happiness, frustration, anger, and an emotion that seems to exist only in The Boy, a sort of surliness-mixed-with-sarcasm: Sarcasliness, maybe. And he experienced all of those emotions, even sacrasliness, all in the span of minutes. He was up, he was down, he bit his lip, he stomped his foot, he cheered.

Over a game.

Think about this: When was the last time you saw someone react to a movie, or tv show, with the kind of visceral emotion that they use to react to sporting events?

Well, never, you say, but that's because TV and movies aren't real. To which I respond, first: you've never seen The Boy watch the Academy Awards, and second, Sports aren't real, either.

The Boy gets all worked up over the Academy Awards, too, if there's a movie he likes. He cheers them the way he cheers his teams in sports, and tries to raz me about them even though I don't really care. When The Return of the King won Best Picture, he jumped up and down and barely slept that night.

But more importantly, sports aren't real. They're just a show. Sure, they're taking place live (mostly) and the outcome may be in doubt (mostly) but that doesn't make them any more real than, say, Rock Of Love, which also takes place live (at least, it does when it's being filmed) and is a competition (?) in which the outcome is in doubt.

So if you think about it that way, these people are all
high-caliber athletes, no different than Michael Phelps or Annika Sorenstam.

If taking place live before a live audience is the mark of what's real, then Charles In Charge is real, because that was filmed before a live studio audience. If the outcome being in doubt is what makes it real, then For The Love Of Ray J is a sport, because nobody knows in advance which form of VD will end up sweeping through all the cast members.

Also athletes. Practically Olympians.

So sports, including the NFL and baseball and things that are obviously rigged and not sports, like the NBA, aren't any more real than anything else you can watch on TV, but people take them far, far more seriously. Nobody gets bent out of shape wondering if Neo is going to turn out to be The One and fight Agent Smith, but people bite their nails and hang on the edge of their seats wondering if Scott Norwood's kick will go through the uprights. People debate, for a while, whether the ending to The Sopranos was lame or not (it was, as was the entire series) but people never ever ever forget to mention that the "Music City Miracle" was no miracle, it was instead a forward lateral, which should have been ruled illegal and ended the game so that the Buffalo Bills advanced in the playoffs and not the Tennessee Titans.

I used to be one of those latter kind of people, the kind of guy who would mention, for years and years and years, how it was obvious that the refs blew that particular call, and go on and on about it (and I was right), but then one day, I just... stopped caring.

I forgave the Titans, and kind of even rooted for them, them and their coach and his lame moustache, and moved on, because, I realized, what did it matter?

It's just sports, and being upset over sports is dumb. It's as dumb to be mad, years later, about whether or not that guy threw a forward lateral (FYI, he totally did) as it would be to be dumb, years later, about Frank's decision not to go to Paris with April and the baby -- a decision, and result, after all, which had far more shocking consequences for all involved, consequences which were every bit as real as the consequences for those Bills and Titans involved in the Music City Miracle.

For Frank and April, Frank's decision not to go to Paris meant the end of their lives, or at least their lives as they'd known them. (And also, at least one of their lives.) But not really, because Kate Winslet didn't die, but instead also starred as a sexy Nazi (?) in The Reader and will appear as a sexy lady named Mildred (?) in the upcoming Mildred Pierce, so in the long run, not going to Paris didn't change her life at all.

And the same can be said for the Bills and Titans in the Music City Miracle. The Bills didn't get to go on in the playoffs. They went home for the season. The Titans did get to go on, ultimately losing in the Superbowl to the Rams in a game that, in the long run, didn't matter, either.

I was excited when the Titans lost that Superbowl, back in 2000; I thought it was their just desserts, having advanced by (in my view, and in fact) cheating, but now, years and years later, I can barely remember the game and I can only dimly remember feeling excited that they lost that game. I have a much better recollection of the cartoon Bugs' Bonnets than I do of that game, even though Bugs' Bonnets is a Bugs Bunny cartoon that I saw maybe 2 or 3 times as a kid, back in the 1970s and early 1980s, and the Rams-Titans Superbowl I watched as an adult only 9 years ago.

Bugs' Bonnets, by the way, is the cartoon where a hat truck bursts open and hats drift around and Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd take on the personalities of the hats that land on their heads:

I loved that cartoon as a kid, but until today I hadn't seen it in probably nearly 3 decades. But I remembered that cartoon better than I remember any football game I've ever watched, ever.

I'm not saying all this to say, only, that sports don't matter. They don't, in the long run, matter, or at least they don't matter the way people think they matter.

Sports don't matter in the sense that people believe they matter, because it doesn't matter who wins or who loses, or how "your" team does or how your favorite player plays. All those things are as transient and unimportant as any entertainment. So your favorite player has moved on from his old team to a new one, and then to a new-er one. So what? Charles had one family replaced by another with no questions asked, and Darren kept being Darren even though he was clearly a different person one season, and you'll develop another new player to love, and another new player to hate. If you're upset because your team lost, don't be, because people lose all the time in entertainment, and they come back the next week and play again, just as characters come back in the next movie. Sometimes that field goal is wide right, and sometimes Darth Vader strikes down Obi Wan Kenobi while Luke just stands there and watches. In either case, neither is gone for long.

But sports do matter in another sense. I, long ago, listed the Important Things in life, and those were: Love, Politics, Science, Art, and Sports. Four of those things are noncontroversial, I think. Their importance can easily be recognized.

Sports I included as its own category because it differed from the others while being equal in importance. Sports is the gravity that prevents the others from forming a Unified Theory of Everything; sports are the outlier that don't fit in with the rest and yet they exist and must be accounted for, just as gravity exists and must be accounted for.

Sports don't matter. Not in the real world, real life sense of changing things, or having the ability to affect the world.

Love matters. If you don't love anyone and nobody loves you, you're going to end up climbing the bell tower and shooting people who approach. Conversely, if we loved others the way we say we should, we probably wouldn't send troops to other countries, we'd send food, and we wouldn't get all bent out of shape just because people can't come to our houses for the holidays; we'd want them to be happy whether or not they were with us.

Politics matter, because if we don't pay attention to politics, we end up with a health care "system" that nobody likes but nobody wants to change, while insurance companies buy off our representatives and our president gallivants around the world, ignoring the people who elected him to pay attention to things here.

Science matters, and I don't mean science like "velociraptors" and "crashing things into the moon," but real science, science that develops cures for cancer and helps people have babies and builds cars that run on water , cars that would revolutionize the world but which for some reason aren't being produced yet.

Art matters because art is the mirror we hold up to the world and show ourselves what we really look like, with and without makeup.

But sports don't matter, not like that. Sports don't change anything, ever. We've had the "modern Olympic games" for 213 years, and during that time we've had war upon war upon war, with genocide and nuclear weapons and death marches and terrorism. Sports aren't improving the world, and they don't tell us anything about anything, and they don't reassure us that there's a reason for our existence.

Sports don't matter, not in the grand scheme of things. But they do matter, on an individual level, just the way that gravity matters to you even though you don't think about it, and just as the net effect of gravity adds up until it controls the entire universe, the net effect of sports adds up until it becomes apparent just how important it is, these things that don't matter.

Sports matter because, first, they are something we believe we can do, and try to do, even though, for the most part, we can't. "I could have made that catch," we say, but the odds are we couldn't have, and if there was even a slim chance that we could have made the catch, we would not be sitting on our couch in our Terrell Davis jerseys, we'd be on a field somewhere, making that catch.

Anyone can pick up a golf club, swing it, and probably hit the ball. But very few people can do that well enough to shoot 18-under-par over four consecutive days in a golf tournament, as Tiger Woods did. But the fact that we most likely will not ever do that well at the game of golf does not prevent many of us from picking up those clubs, anyway, and becoming so many Carl Spacklers:

Even the athletes themselves are not immune to this. So many of us watched Michael Jordan, the greatest athlete the human race has ever seen, and thought to ourselves I could do that but we couldn't, and we knew it, deep down inside, a knowledge that didn't keep us from pretending we were Michael Jordan when we played The Boy in basketball -- but then, so many of us watched Michael Jordan say to himself, about baseball, I could do that, only he couldn't, either.

But he didn't let that stop him from trying, and that's the first most important thing about sports: It makes us try. It makes us believe we could be better, it makes us challenge ourselves.

We may not be able to throw a 50-yard touchdown pass in a Superbowl, but we can throw a 50-yard touchdown pass to our friends while playing in a pickup game in law school. We many not be able to win the Tour de France seven times (while displaying a total lack of sportsmanship), but we can hum classical music while we race our friends around Hartridge subdivision as kids.

We may never run in the Chicago Marathon, but we can raise our hands in victory when we finish a run around the nature trail, raising our hands even though there was nobody around to see, and nobody else was in the race.

Sports do that for us: They make us dream and try and believe, believe in something that doesn't take years of specialized knowledge to master, doesn't require us to be a Senator first, doesn't involve oil paint and canvas, and, in the end, needs nobody else around to take part in: little kids throwing a pass to themselves in the backyard prove that. Maybe not everyone can pitch Game 7 of the World Series -- but everyone can throw a baseball and dream that they are.

Because of that, sports also bind us together. Sports create a bond between us, a bond that we easily and unashamedly wear, literally, on our chests and our sleeves. We put on our Broncos' jersey and our Yankees' hats and go to the store, where we have a shared moment amongst the sour cream and cottage cheese and scrabbling babies. We wear red on Badger Saturdays and honk as we go by Camp Randall stadium, we buy shirts proclaiming our love for some teams or our hatred for others, and share those emotions with each other, binding us together in a way that is at once weak, and amazingly strong. Weak because at the end of the game, we will get up from the sports bar and wave to the people we've momentarily been friends with and say See ya when we know we won't, but strong because for those three hours that the game was on, we sat next to each other in the seats and watched as "our" team pulled it out, or almost didn't.

Sports is a universal force of nature, as important as love or politics, because it matters despite its complete lack of meaning:

Tripper was right, in part, and wrong, in part. It doesn't matter how good or bad you are at sports, it doesn't matter who wins or loses, who is the home team or the away team, how many championships your team has, or doesn't have. It doesn't matter if you get the big free agent, if the guy you're rooting for makes that long putt, none of that matters.

What matters is that sports exist, and in existing, encourage us to try, and to share that trying.

It just doesn't matter.

But it does.

With all that said, let me introduce a new feature this week. Instead of doing the Arbitrary Picks, which were getting boring for me, I'm going to try out, for a bit, What To Watch & Why, my advice to you on the sporting event (or almost-sporting event) for the upcoming week that you should be watching, and... of course... why I say you should watch it.

This week's What To Watch & Why is Game 5 of the American League Championship series. Playing at 7:57 p.m., Thursday, if needed, Game 5 of the ALCS promises to be everything a sports fan like you could want: A game that might not take place, but if it does, it'll likely be the final game of the series, so you'll get to watch the most exciting parts of the ALCS. The Yankees lead 2-0 as of right now, with the next two games in Los Angeles. The odds are that the Angels will win one of those, so New York will return home with a 3-1 advantage and a desire to finish things up before the weekend. That means, too, that C.C. Sabathia will probably pitch; just like the Brewers last year had Sabathia pitch more or less every inning from August 1 until their season ended in the first round of the playoffs, the Yankees will likely work Sabathia as often as possible until they win their 373rd World Series.

But, most importantly, if you set aside time to watch Game 5, and it's not needed, you'll have that time marked off anyway, and you'll suddenly have it free to do something fun (i.e., not baseball related) with, like watch Parks & Recreation.

This week's Good Luck Charms are:

Kate Winslet: you got the references to Revolutionary Road, right? Come on! I think it's great that I can reference Bugs Bunny, Rock of Love, and Revolutionary Road all in one post!


Tiger Woods, who's first Masters' victory inspired me to take up golf again (but not to actually practice golf. Just to play it) and whose bicep inspires me to want to do push-ups, but I'm not falling for that. Not again. That's what they would like, but I'm no sucker.

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