In Homage to All These Beautiful Years and Delicate Hours
This past Thursday we observed the Super Bowl of Cereal in my son Julien’s kindergarten class. Dads were invited to come with their kids to the classroom a little early wearing their favorite team’s jersey, have cereal, and take part in activities in anticipation of this Sunday’s Super Bowl. I don’t usually eat cereal for breakfast, and I don’t have a jersey bearing the name of my favorite team (and I don’t even have a favorite team now). Although Julien has some hand-me down clothes with various sports insignia on them, he doesn’t follow any team. What’s more, he probably hasn’t seen as much as a minute of any kind of game on television, because whenever we find ourselves flipping through the channels, if we see there’s some kind of game on, we immediately move on to the next station.
Whether it’s me, my wife Heather, or our daughter Maggie (Julien’s thirteen-year-old big sister) who has control of the remote, if there’s a game on, we keep searching. If Julien grows up to be anything like the rest of us, I imagine that when he’s old enough to take charge of the remote, he’ll move on right past the games, too. So, on Thursday morning, on a day when we were encouraged to wear items of clothing that would demonstrate our sports affiliations, Julien chose to wear a red tee shirt with the image of Godzilla on it. I wore a tee shirt with a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Notwithstanding our lack of interest in football or any kind of sports, our participation in the Super Bowl of Cereal that morning went smoothly.
Two years ago was the first time in forty or so years that I didn’t watch even a single minute of the Super Bowl. Since it had been around fifteen years since I stopped paying close attention to football, it wasn’t all that difficult. Still, every year come Super Sunday, I’d always turn on the television in time to see what was going on with the halftime show; then I’d watch the second half of the game. And, if it was a good game, I’d get into it.
Two years ago, with the halftime entertainment being Katy Perry (whose music and performances I consider an example of the sort of fine-tuned professionalism that’s vapid and uncompelling) I wasn’t driven to turn on the Super Bowl even midway through the game. (I won’t bother to explain why I wasn’t tempted last year when Coldplay was the lead halftime entertainment.) But in addition to entertainment I find uninspiring, one of the reasons I didn’t turn on the halftime show was that we only have one working television in the house. Having one television for our household is fine with me because I find televisions to be one of the ugliest appliances imaginable, and on that Super Bowl Sunday two years ago Julien, then four-years-old, was watching a DVD of the show Arthur. You know, Arthur. The cartoon where the main character is from a family of aardvarks (of course you have to look that up because the first time you see the show you have no idea what sort of animal Arthur is supposed to be). Rounding out the remaining cast of characters are rabbits, monkeys, cats, and so on.
I liked Arthur. It was a sweet show, and the theme song — which went, “And I say HEY! (HEY!)/ What a wonderful kind of day. / If you can learn to work and play/ And get along with each other” — was catchier than anything I’d ever heard coming from the mouth of Katy Perry. Apparently, Julien liked it too, and back then, when it was playing, he’d sing along with that exclamatory “HEY!” And, I must say, even now, Arthur and his cast of anthropomorphic animals makes me happier than football does. What’s more, it is, in its subtle way, a celebration of diversity, and as such provides lessons much more important than whether or not one wins some sports competition.
Which isn’t to say that I don’t appreciate football at all, because back in the day, I watched it enthusiastically. I have fond memories of watching football games. Back in the 60s and 70s, a smooth spiraling pass from Sonny Jurgensen (or even a wobbly one from Billy Kilmer) to Charley Taylor were amazing things to behold. And then Charley Taylor, standing in the end zone, would raise his arms up in a way that seemed to say that he got the score and there was nothing you or anyone else could do to change that. I always thought that Charley Taylor’s victory pose may have even signified other things, too — things beyond the football field, and pointed toward other sorts of victories yet to be achieved. But whatever it was that went on in Charley Taylor’s mind, it was always a beautiful sight, and the image of him with his arms raised is an image that stays with me and inspires me even. I just have to avoid thinking about my home town team’s name.
As the years went on, though, I slowly lost my interest in football. It probably started happening soon after Heather and I first got together. In the days when I was a wild-eyed, big-drinking poet, a Sunday afternoon spent collapsed on a chair in front of the television probably seemed like a relatively reasonable way to spend my time. But with my more wild, self-destructive times behind me, wasting an afternoon in front of the television wasn’t all that appealing anymore. There was, after all, a world out there for us to explore. And though sometimes, if we couldn’t think of anything we wanted to do or anywhere we wanted to go, we’d stay in and I’d watch the game. It wasn’t long, though, before watching the game not only wasn’t my preference. It also became kind of boring. And on those Sundays when I was a bit tired, I sometimes found myself falling asleep, missing the end of a game, and not really caring what happened.
If I recall correctly, it was the fall after Maggie was born when I stopped watching during the regular season — the Super Bowl was all I bothered with. With a newborn child in my life, watching football was something like sleep. That is to say, it was something I didn’t have as much time for. And, when the opportunity arose to either get a little sleep or watch football, I chose sleep. It wasn’t a hard choice. Because football, for me, was like some girl I had a crush on when I was a teenager. Someone I thought was cool and interesting and fun and all that before I moved on to other things. Things that really interested me. Things I didn’t try to enjoy simply because they were what I was supposed to enjoy.
Not long after Maggie turned four was when we left anything resembling a city and moved out to a small town in the Shenandoah Valley. Heather still commuted to her office in Arlington three days a week, but I always stayed out in the valley. Being out there was an adventure in many ways, not all of them pleasant. One thing I did appreciate, though, were the wide open spaces that were just a minute or two away from our house. I’d always thought that the city was the best place for generating ideas. That, as a writer, I needed that pace and density in order to work. What I found out, though, was that this place where I’m less comfortable and less welcome — mind you, this ain’t no damn writers colony or artists retreat — inspired me to do more work than I’d ever done before. I think it has something to do with the space, and all the good and bad things it contains. And how the space, somehow, gives me the energy and perspective to examine any random moment endlessly. I imagine it has something to do with time.
On the day after that first Super Bowl I didn’t watch, Julien was sitting at the dining room table when he said, “I want my leftover pizza. I love pizza.” Now, I like a lot of different kinds of food, but when Julien said “I love pizza,” pizza suddenly became the most important food of all for me. Then, on the day after that, Julien was again sitting at the table when he said, “I want my paints. I love to paint.” And for the moment, for me, there was no artistic endeavor in the world more important that painting, and no greater painter I could think of than Kandinsky or maybe it was Frida Kahlo or Romare Bearden whose works were suddenly filling my mind. Later that night, right before dinner, Maggie, who was eleven year old then, was in the hall playing this incredible tune on the piano.
“What is that?” I asked.
“Oh, it’s some old Russian folk song,” she answered nonchalantly.
“That was really good!”
“Okay,” Maggie said. Then after a second added, “Weirdo.” With ‘weirdo’ being her all-purpose word at the time serving as an expression of thanks, a term of endearment, and a morning, afternoon, and evening greeting. And in that moment, I loved being a weirdo.
Then it was dinner time. Heather heated up leftovers from the previous night. We ate, I washed the dishes, and Heather reminded Maggie a few times that she’d better start on her homework. Soon, it was time for Heather to take Julien up to bed, but it took a while for him to fall asleep that night, and it took her a long time as well, and it was late before Maggie finally went upstairs. Then, when I finally went up to bed, I saw that Maggie was awake again, sitting up in bed. Like everything else, losing sleep is something we usually do together.
The following morning, with Heather already having been at the office in Arlington for a few hours, I was on the way back home from dropping Maggie and Julien off at school when the Replacements’ “Can’t Hardly Wait” came on the car stereo followed by Earth Wind & Fire’s “Can’t Let Go” — two songs that that put me in two different sorts of mood, each mood beautiful in its own way. As the songs played, I looked down John Marshall Highway to watch the mountains in the distance, towering green and white over town under a lush purple sky. At any rate, I thought it was a purple sky I was seeing — because my vision is slightly color deficient, I’m never all that sure exactly what colors I’m seeing. Then, remembering again the Super Bowl that I missed in its entirety, it occurred to me that no matter what the actual colors were, the comfort I got from those images and from the music that accompanied them, was — at least at that point in my life — far greater than whatever comfort or diversion or whatever it was that I got out of watching any game.
And it also occurred to me that I’d rather take my time examining and contemplating these moments — wondering what song was going to play next, or what color the mountains were going to take on — than anticipating whether the next play would be a run, or a short pass, or a bomb. It’s not that I couldn’t have enjoyed the game, because I could have, if I’d taken the time to watch it. But I was at that age where time was beginning to seem like such a delicate thing. The apparent abundance of it that was there forty years ago, when I was just a teenager, has dissipated like a rain puddle in the summer’s heat.
More and more, games are something for me to play with my kids. They’re not so much for my own enjoyment, but for them, so that while they’re young they may know abundance. Not the abundance that comes from money or objects or from the winning of competitions of any sort. But that which comes from being here, now, in these sometimes tired but always beautiful hours of wakefulness.
At some point since that first Super Bowl I missed in its entirety, Julien moved on from watching Arthur to watching Godzilla movies. And, from singing along to the theme song from Arthur to asking me to play the music of Miles Davis over and over, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Maggie moved on from playing Russian folk songs on piano to playing Chopin and Thelonious Monk. She’s read books by Haruki Murakami and Katherine Dunn. Heather finished writing a novel. I’ve written maybe two hundred poems. I’m not sure of the exact number — it’s not a competition. Sometimes, when Julien is upstairs getting ready for bed, he’ll shout down to Maggie, “Maggie, play Thelonious Monk.”
In what are sure to be difficult days ahead, we will need to spend our time wisely. And although in our house there are times when the television is on, much of that time, no one is watching it.
Photograph by Jose Padua