Sunday, January 3, 2016

The Sun Also Rises - A Football Edition

“You're an expatriate. You've lost touch with the soil. You get precious. Fake European standards have ruined you. You drink yourself to death. You become obsessed with sex. You spend all your time talking, not working. You are an expatriate, see? You hang around cafes.”

This morning yet another day is upon us. No cataclysmic refusal of a sun to rise, no ridicule followed the performance of young men in a game to my own personal nightmares. I am reminded that we are fans. Nothing more and nothing less.

Fans are a very important piece to the puzzle that is college athletics. There is a sort of tribal or territorial pride involved. We spend our money, we cheer, we revel in victory and agonize in defeat. But too often we put ourselves ahead of the truth - that which is most important. The players and coaches care more than do the fans. When we got up this morning, our future was not dependent upon the outcome of last night's game. Some of us will work today, most of us tomorrow.

But there are 11 full time coaches and 85 scholarship football players who are more distraught over the performance last night. They fought with their blood, sweat and tears to bring fans a moment of perceived joy, glory, happiness, which ever adjective best describes why we revel in victory. Rodney Hardrick has had eight major surgeries during his football career and faces a ninth this off-season. He is college football.

What is often lost after such a devastating defeat on the field is that wins and losses are only a small piece of the puzzle. Every year 25 or so young men arrive on a college campus having not really known what it is like to be an adult. Coaches take these young men and attempt to develop them into men who will bring positive to the world. The young men, while spending 20 hours per week in football related activities, also attend college full time attempting to not only develop into men of character, but educated men of character.

This, you see, is the primary objective of college football. Education. Character. Of course, coaches are measured by more than just graduation rates and character development. Wins matter. But as we wake up this morning, we have become Hemingway's expatriates.

“You're a fan. You've lost touch with the soil. You get precious. Fake SEC standards have ruined you. You drink yourself to death. You become obsessed with winning. You spend all your time talking, not working. You are a college football fan, see? You hang around message boards.”

These moments should be what they are for us. We are fans and we will feel upset, betrayed almost, when the team for whom we cheer somehow lets us down. But I can guarantee you that the players and coaches are considerably more ruminative about their troubles in San Antonio than any of us could hope to be.

I woke up today to snow. I hate snow. But my dog ran and played in the stuff and that brought joy to my wife and, consequently, myself. It is just a game. A game played by young men. At the end of the day, it was great joy to watch this season unfold at times, and painful at others.

My pain, though, is temporary. There is another season to come. A season which will begin with the same hope as all seasons.

Go Ducks.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

A season removed from purgatory

As I look back at the season that was historic on so many levels, it is a certainty that my own experience in 2014 was a bit tainted by choices and situations both within my control and outside the purview of my capabilities. I look to the 2015 season as a season of renewal which is perfect in timing thanks in large part to the efforts of the Flyin' Hawaiian and the misadventures of a writer turned recluse who returned not so reluctantly to the sidelines late in the 2014 season to watch history unfold in front of my own eyes.

It is with this backdrop that I open the 2015 football coverage both from the standpoint of writing for a website, covering the team based on their standards, attempting to also juggle my own priorities and still finding a way to jot down the season as it unfolds, quite like keeping a football journal which takes us all through the season.

What I find interesting about a journey I have yet to begin, and a journey that will, as is frequently the case when embarking on a destination of unknown points, take me directions I cannot predict, is that it once again begins amidst some ambiguity regarding my role as a sports writer.

I use the term writer in place of journalist because to consider someone writing about sports a journalist, their work in such capacity should be ground-breaking and consciousness altering regarding the topic. Nothing I say in an article about Oregon football rises to the level of journalism in its essence. I think sometimes sportswriters call themselves journalists because that is the only way to take their job as serious as it is believed to be in their minds. This is a game, after all. There are not life and death decisions; there is no nuclear war being averted. There is nothing of substantive value provided from writing about a sporting event.

Groundbreaking stories regarding the ‘cheating’ of college coaches in garnering competitive advantages in recruiting are hardly at the same level of importance as say the Watergate scandal or other political scandals that tend to rock the core of society and how we view things through a tainted lens of obscurity. Once in a while there can be a sports story that shines the light on bigger problems that need to be addressed. I am not thinking of those nice little ten-minute tear jerker segments on ESPN produced to remind us of the fragility of life in general, but more important stories that talk to us about our souls as a people and a nation. The Penn State scandal involving Jerry Sandusky comes to mind as one which exposes a much wider issue than anything a football game can provide. Our perverse approach to sexuality in this nation has gone so far beyond being merely complicated. But even the Sandusky story was done so not to really delve into the meat and potatoes of a society so obsessed with sexual desire and lust built into a culture through media, but to simply expose a criminal. And while that exposure was of the utmost importance not just to right the wrongs of sins against our children, but to hopefully prevent such future abuses, little was done to dig deeper. A pervert was caught, a pervert was jailed, and some media people became famous in their exposure if the pervert. Then it all went away.

Therein lay the problem with not just sports media, but media in general. We are so busy looking for stories, that we create little one-liners for television guest appearances and do so very little to do more than expose a nasty truth. We do not dig into why we have let a nation built on strong principles and brilliant ideology devolve into such a ball of mass confusion.

Sports is a window into the soul of individuals and society as a whole. As I write this piece today, I am bombarded mentally by the image of a former six time All-Pro NFL defensive back pleading out and accepting nine more years for drugging and raping women all across the nation. I write this in the shadows of concussion lawsuits and suicides of once great athletes. There are plenty of articles detailing the demise of the players, the cover-up by the leagues, and the lack of proper care. Yet there is still little information, little satire, and far too little social criticism focused on the culture that created this monster.

It is like we are afraid; afraid that if we discuss in satirical nature why this monster exists, that the write structure will crumble and that which we love will suddenly fade into oblivion. The truth is that I am a sports fan, and specifically a football fan. I am not fearful that the sport will entirely disappear for several reasons. Firstly, I don’t think that anything I or any other writer puts in paper or cyberspace will destroy the game. If the game is to be destroyed, it will happen from within. When deaths begin to occur with regularity, not deaths after completion of a career, but actual in-game deaths, when those begin to occur, the sport itself will implode rapidly. Secondly, there is a life outside of sports. If all competitive sports were to be decreed illegal tomorrow, there would be no loss in my ultimate lifestyle. Life would move forward. I would have more free time in which I could read literature, explore the world around me, or even just do yardwork.

So this is the beginning, but it is really just another step in the metamorphosis of a man. I was a boy once, and in many ways, I have always been that little boy. I stumbled onto some interesting tidbits of information that others found to be worthy of print. I wrote a story once about the recruitment of a young man, the lies that were told, and the misperceptions that were extolled to sell stories. Many members of media discredited me straight away because I was not a journalist in their minds. If by journalist they were referring to someone who attended journalism school, worked for a traditional news gathering organization, and received a paycheck for his services, well, they were correct. However, if a journalist is defined as a person who collects, writes, or distributes news or other current information, then I along with many others who have done similar stories, could have been considered a journalist. But, again, I am talking about sports. This is not rocket science. But do not turn away, because while the individualistic concept of sport is not life altering, it is a mirror into the soul of a society and it is that mirror which I will explore throughout the season.

For me, this mirror was also provided into my own personal soul. Through the process of writing the original story and 6then developing my own brand of writing covering sports, it awakened the child who used to love to read and write. Maybe some will refer to this as a beast, but I refer to it as the beast within, and that is a good thing. It allows me to expand those things which had become a hindrance in life to becoming a breakthrough.

What is interesting to me as I approach this project and the upcoming football season is that I am once again threatened by a potential loss of status. Writing has become a participation sport where not only is my reliability as a writer, one who has never missed a deadline or not written a story when it was important; a writer who has always been willing to cover where needed for the site; that is no longer enough as my spot has been threatened for more message board participation. Sure, it is a goal really to have me re-engage with my readers, something I am remiss has faltered over the last two years for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is my burgeoning desire to expand my thoughts beyond one page articles about football branching into writing literary fiction novels. That has created a huge restriction on what time I have available to post and respond to some of the inane off-season banter that surrounds college football. It is that very lack of conversational whimsy that has my presence among other writers feeling threatened. And it is from that position that I begin the journey that is the 2015 football season.

Along this path, I will write football stories, and I will write deeper commentary on those stories. The journey will be unique to me as I capture the feeling of this season removed from my own self-imposed purgatory. Will I be back in the booth this year? Or will I be banished to my old seats in section 36? Only time will tell the full answer. And along the way,  I will share that experience.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Chapter XV-Love and Marriage

Randall and Mary followed through on their promise. Feeling as if the trip would be a waste if I did not learn more about the hero of the tales related to us by our tour guides. There were too many sites to discuss individually. Suffice it to say that the trip was certainly one in which the mere existence of our consciousness was dwarfed by the higher planes at which others seemed to live their lives.
This couple I had found the inspiration to use as my own personal tour guides within the tour were just one such couple. Amazed by their ostensibly higher plane of existence, I was desperate for the secret of their successes.

“There is no secret,” they had both uttered simultaneously when questioned about what it was that made their marriage look stronger than a towering redwood. With roots deeper than even the most tangled evergreen shrub, it appeared that no one would ever be able to tear them apart. I had heard the words ‘let no man tear asunder’ countless times and yet it always seemed trivial; a fallacy created by mankind as a method of controlling us through guilt. Yet here were two people living the phrase.

“People think there is some magic potion or trick to make a marriage strong and to make it last. The only magic trick? Work. Ease in marriage is just like ease in a magic show; it’s all just an illusion. There is nothing easy about marriage. We work hard every day. At the end of the day, though, we know we love each other.”

“And that makes all the difference,” said Mary to her husband’s mini lecture.

“Neither of our parents had the perfect marriage. Randy’s divorced when he was young and there was a lot of animosity between them. My parents fought frequently, but never yelled. It was amazing as a teenager to watch them resolve their conflicts without anger or name-calling.”

“I think that is the nail on the head right there Mary. Name-calling. When you call the person who you are supposed to love more than anything outside of God, you diminish their worth. It seems almost insignificant when you tell your wife she is acting like a bitch, but it tears just a little piece of her soul away and eventually, you are left with a woman whose soul has been stripped and the man who destroyed her. There is no love left. Just pain.

Even for the non-religious, a marriage can be near perfect. You don’t have to believe in a God, be a Christian or any other religion to have a strong marriage. Now, we believe that God makes everything better-including marriage-but that does not mean that a marriage cannot work without Him.
“I had been raised not only in a Godless home, for the most part, but also a home in which name-calling was the only method of communication that seemed to exist. No wonder I had never really learned much about successful marriage,” I thought to myself.

I debated internally, though, how much of this was true. Mary and Randy had been very open about their experiences, but they seemed more like the fairy tale you see on television or the movies. It appeared fake; unnatural.

Despite my distrust in their honesty, they continued to counsel me throughout our journey. They talked to me about the Bible and Jesus. Answered my myriad questions and were a phenomenal resource for information on this trip. Where I had gone on prior soul searching trips had led me further astray from understanding myself, I finally felt I had learned a little bit more about what it was I was lacking. Unfortunately, I did not entirely believe I could ever find the inner peace each of this unique couple had found. They seemed as if they were at peace as individuals as well as a couple. If something were to happen to one, the other would be totally at peace with life as he or she would come to know.

I doubt I would have the kind of inner peace to handle tragedy like I believed they would.
The two made an intriguing couple. Had an outsider looked on, there is no circumstance under which anyone would have envisioned this particular pairing. Mary looked as if she had been a cheerleader in a different life. Years had added some light padding to her hips, but the smile and the eyes painted the picture of someone whose spirit and enthusiasm were never diminished. She looked as if a typical girl next door whose beauty was deeper than a facial expression or dress size.
Randy, would not be mistaken for any high school football hero. Barely taller than Mary, he was thinset with thick glasses and a receding hairline.

Both were exceedingly nice to any and all who took the time to say hello. Their personality was as if a sugar cookie had come to life and become human. Almost sickeningly sweet, it seemed there was never a negative uttered from their lips or entering their minds. They did not yet have children, but had that feeling around them as if children were not just a necessity, but something which was an inevitability.

I had seen families like this when I was younger. Religious and loving almost to a fault, I always felt that they were fictitious characters whose reality was hidden inside some dark secret closet which they had not yet opened but existed nonetheless. Maybe that was not skepticism as much as disgust. Why is it that there are so many children stuck inside a world of fear and anger? Why is it that some of us have to go through this kind of torture. What did I do wrong?

I secretly began to doubt the legitimacy of their love. No one could have this much harmony and peace in a life full of confusion.

Despite those doubts, though, I continued to acquiesce to their tutoring in the intricacies of the Christian religion and their marriage. Mary had been the kind of woman who, in high school, I would have practically worshipped. How in the world did someone with so many obvious physical flaws find a way to make someone who was every man’s dream love him so unconditionally? It made little sense to me. I had spent so many years becoming what I was expected to become. I had graduated high school, college and graduate school. I had multiple degrees and money in the bank, I treated serious girlfriends as if they were the empress of the universe practically worshiping their every movement but had made a few mistakes that had led me into a world of lovelessness and loneliness. I had loved unconditionally, with the exception of an inability to forgive an incestuous relationship with the one woman who had actually been able to tolerate me for longer than a few dates. I had always been told that women liked a man who treated them with respect and trust, but had found the opposite to be true. The worse I treated women, up to a very fine line, the more that they seemed to desire my presence. There was a sort of hypocrisy in what I had been told and what I had experienced. Meeting Mary and Randy had told me that there was some sort of truth out there which I had yet to see first-hand. It is something I longed for more than words could express. It seemed illusory to me, however.

Yes, life could be confusing, but the reality seemed to be that Mary and Randy had overcome the confusion. As we wandered through the footsteps of Jesus, I continued to be fascinated with the purity and depth of not just their love for each other, but their genuine compassion for a man whom they had just met. I was nothing to them, just a random stranger passing through their lives like a gust of wind through the leaves of the mighty oak, I would be forgotten within mere moments. Despite this transitory existence in the consciousness of a strange couple thousands of miles from home, I was accepted in their minds as someone who was worthwhile not because of anything other than my mere existence.

“He really is a lost soul isn’t he?” Mary would later ask Randy.

“I don’t know about lost. I think he is more of a confused soul. He just has no clue who he is supposed to be or what it is that defines a person. Look at the way he dresses. He has what looks to be normal clothes, jeans, tee-shirt and tennis shoes. Did you notice the watch though?”

“Not really.”

“Rolex. Noticing that, I paid a little more attention. Designer everything. Money is how he seems to define himself. He is worried about what people think of him and he covers his insecurities with expensive goods thinking that will be enough to make people like him. Maybe liking him is not really the goal, but he wants people to know that he has money.”

“Interesting, I never really made that connection. But he did seem to make it really important that we know he is a lawyer.”

“Not just a lawyer, a corporate lawyer. He seemed to feel there was a difference. Like because he doesn’t chase ambulances he is somehow better than other types of lawyers.”

*                *                      *                      *                      *

Mary and Randy had been able to get to the heart of Brian’s character with very little effort. While he considered himself complex and mysterious, the couple he had happened upon during the early phases of this trip, saw through his subterfuge and straight to the core; shallow and transparent, Brian Jefferson wasn’t just a lost soul he was an empty soul.

The Robinson’s were not well acquainted with emptiness. Despite the animosity which surrounded the divorce of his own mother and father, Randy had learned compassion and dignity from his mother. Acrimonious at the beginning, his parent’s divorce had subsided to normalcy within two years. Randy’s father had been a raging alcoholic. After a particularly ugly incident away from his family, treatment had made him much more aware of the caustic nature of his personality. While it would never be enough to create reconciliation from a marital perspective, it would at least create a sense of amity between the mother and father. Seeing his father struggle to maintain sobriety had led Randy to his tea-totaling lifestyle.

Mary had grown to truly adore both of her in-laws and immensely respected the elder Robinson for his ability to overcome a demon she deemed straight from the heart of Satan himself in such a courageous manner.

She had never experienced the amount of familial strife which had practically encompassed her future husband’s life, but she seemed to have a deep compassion for those less fortunate. When she met him, she was immediately drawn to him as a nurturer. That is a character trait which had been passed down from her mother. Being raised with seven siblings as the oldest creates a sense of nurturing as well, and Mary was someone who could feel like a sister or mother given the right circumstance.

She had been inexperienced in matters of the heart and was not shy about her purity. Nor was she ashamed. She took great pride in her faithfulness to God and her purity in His eyes. Not everyone can approach life with the kind of zealous clarity which had encompassed Mary’s heart and mind, but she made it seem natural.

“Well, let’s make sure we continue to pray for him,” Mary said. “God put us with him for a reason and I think it is really important that we take this signal from Him to help Brian come to the Truth.”

“Absolutely. At the very least, Brian might see a sense of harmony which could inspire him to a different life. I think, though, that we need to get a little more personal, more in-depth, with him. I think he is more than lost and more than confused. We need to find out which area of life that he struggles with. Clearly self-identity is at the core, but it just seems like something else is going on with him.”

*                *                      *                      *                      *

The next morning, as we ascended Mt. Sinai, it started to become clear to me that I had become their project. Our conversations up to this point had been pretty generic with me asking a bunch of questions about their belief system, the specifics about Jesus and the Bible, how they seemed to be so content with each other. This had all seemed pretty innocuous to me, but as they asked me more questions which were increasingly personal, I began to be uncomfortable. They were trying to save me and I was not sure that there was anything to save. Change maybe, but save was a stretch. I wanted to be a better person, but yet I also wanted to maintain as much of myself as possible. There was nothing really wrong with my sexual nature just the manner in which I had allowed it to manifest itself. Sex was okay, as long as I was not engaging in behavior that could endanger my health and welfare. I felt judgment coming and that was too difficult for me to accept at this point. I decided that the time seemed right to challenge their moral superiority complex with the challenging task of debating sexual mores in society.

“Well, the truth is, Brian, that the reason so many marriages fail is directly correlated to the complete misperception surrounding love, sex and marriage. First of all, Jesus tells us that to look at someone else with lust is to commit adultery, yet men and women do it every day. Why do you think they do this? That was really a rhetorical question, they do it because society has encouraged it.
That’s right, society encourages lust. They tell you not to act on that lust, but that it is okay of you do. What kind of message is that?

Reality says that when you look at a woman in a sexual manner, you have already committed acts with her that would not be acceptable to a girlfriend. Why is it that when a woman catches the man looking, he denies it? If there is nothing wrong with it, why does he hide what he was thinking? Why? Because he knows it is wrong.”

I rebutted “But the people I know are comfortable enough with their sexuality to admit when they find another person attractive. Isn’t it good to be comfortable enough with each other to admit to being human?”

Randy entered the conversation at this point. “Admitting someone is attractive and imagining her having sex with you are two very different things, Brian. We all know what attractiveness is, and it is normal to think another person is pretty, or has a pretty smile, or pretty eyes. But the moment you take something pure and of God, like a smile or pretty eyes, and turn it into something of Satan by imagining sex, looking at her with lust rather than appreciation, by making her an object whose sole purpose in existence is to satisfy your sexual urges, you have made her nothing. You have made yourself nothing and you have put Satan above God. There is no way you can truly love someone who you have turned into an object of Satan.

Sex is completely healthy and natural, when it is part of a deeply spiritual an intimate relationship. The moment it becomes anything less, it begins the destruction of not just the mind, but also the heart and eventually the soul.”

They were convinced of their rightness. It was almost smug and it began to anger me. No. not anger. I was becoming pissed. They had insulted everything I knew. I don’t know that they understood this, but it sure felt like they were being purposely disrespectful. Yet they did not stop.

“Some people talk about having sex as a method to ensure compatibility. That is the stupidest thing I have ever heard,” said Mary. “The two are wholly unrelated. Sex is an important component of marriage, but it is not what being married is about. Someday, we will be ninety years old and sex will be a virtual impossibility. Does that mean we stop loving each other? Does it mean that we are no longer compatible? Of course not.

Unfortunately, so many people nowadays are so captivated by the idea of ‘test driving’ a car as it relates to sexual relations that they have no clue what true intimacy is all about.”

While I had been tuning out much of their intent, there was something about this line of conversation that drew me in closer. I had become their mentee and this was their chance to make an impact on the world. I did not really care what Jesus said about sex, nor what any or all churches said about sex, but I was curious where they were headed.

“Brian, do you know why married couples struggle with their identity as a sexual couple and end up cheating on each other?” Randy asked.

I actually had no clue. The fact that the concept of a marriage based on love started when we as humans had a relatively shorter life span had convinced me that the issue had more to do with life expectancy than any character flaw of the individuals involved. So I simply muttered a caustic “nope.”

“Well, let me tell you. It all boils down to this. When a man or woman has been promiscuous, their mind is cluttered with their own promiscuity. Sex is a very intimate act between two people. Whether we want it to be or not is irrelevant. It simply is. Mary and I were both virgins when we met and we maintained that status until our wedding.

Do you know what the promiscuous people see in their mind when they try to become intimate? They see every partner they have ever been with. They imagine themselves in a different time and place. They fantasize about everyone but the person they are with. How on earth is that considered intimacy? It’s not.

Do you know what Mary and I see when we are together. Each other. No one else. We see, we feel, we experience each other. There is no other and that is our intimacy.”

“Well, that is kind of depressing,” I responded. “That means that anyone who is not a virgin can never attain intimacy? That sounds more like the moral superiority that so many Americans are frustrated with when being preached to. We are all, as Jesus said, sinners. The level of sin or seriousness of that sin should matter none. We should be able to experience the same kind of love and intimacy as you despite our past transgressions and moral defect. Sounds to me like this is just a way to elevate some people above others and create a permanent divide.”

“Not at all.”

I thought to myself as I said this that it would be some sort of atom bomb of guilt laid upon them. It seemed to me that calling out the hypocrisy in their belief system would create a stop to the conversation, but they had more to say.

“Exactly Mary. Who says that a person cannot have intimacy simply because they have been promiscuous? What I was saying came out wrong if that is the way you took it. Yes, promiscuous people see their past partners; their imagination and fantasy can control them and destroy true intimacy. But, and this is important. That does not mean the person who used to be promiscuous cannot overcome his past transgressions and have a healthy relationship. It is difficult, but it can be done.”

This had been a great diversion as we ascended and then descended Mt. Sinai.
Our conversations were not always as contentious as this. Most of the time, it was light and airy. I asked questions about the Bible and the Robinsons graciously answered. We shared dinners and talked in the evenings. This trip had offered me something my previous, considerably shorter excursion had failed to do, a chance to really forget about all my troubles.

Sure, there were times when those things came to the forefront of my mind as I discussed the depth of life with the Robinsons of Iowa, but the serious quickly faded to the recesses of my mind each night. I had chosen the five star package which allowed me to stay in nice hotels all along the tour. I took full advantage. Randy and Mary were usually off to their room for reading and prayer shortly after dinner. Me? I stayed at the bar and had a drink or two each night. The good thing about spending so much time in talk about topics as deep and spiritual as I had ever done, I began to ignore the  constant opportunity that surrounded me.

In the past, I would have seen women from a foreign land as a new ideal. Something to be entranced by and lust for at night. At the moment, though, I practically disregarded their presence and absorbed myself in thought. The hotels all had wi-fi and I continued to read my Dummies look at the Bible. I even downloaded a copy of the Bible and tried to find references to each of our stops along this journey.

As we traversed the desert through the wilderness, the Dead Sea, Galilee and culminating with an extended tour of Jerusalem and all the wonders the ancient city, holy to more than a single religion and the center of modern controversy for decades, I began to consider the Robinsons almost as an extension of my family. It is difficult to not add someone to your life when that much time is spent together in such a deep and meaningful experience. I was thankful for their constant presence around me as the stirrings inside my body were still nearly constant. Every woman became a new fantasy, but the inundation in a religious experience kept those fantasies at bay. For the first time in quite some time, I had not assented to the lustful feelings that arose with every exotic woman. Even the non-exotic women we ran across each had their own beauty that kept the non-stop movie theater that my brain had become rolling mental imagery that would have made the Robinsons blush and hide in shame. In fact, if they knew the truth of my obsessions with just about every woman we saw, they may have run back to their room to pray; not for me as they would have considered me a lost cause, but for their own souls for having been so close to a man so consumed with sexual passions that every waking moment seemed to provide fantasy fodder. They kept me as stable as I had been. I did not seem to be able to turn off my brain, but at least I could stop the fantasy from pushing the rest of me into fulfillment. 

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