I Suck at Football, Week 18: Nolo Contendere

AP Photo/Eric Gay Andy Dalton

My sister finds an apartment and a roommate and moves out of my house the morning of the last Bengals game of the season. It takes maybe 30 minutes to ferry her boxes out of my office and up the driveway to a U-Haul and then another 45 to rebuild the box-fort against the wall of the living room in her new place. L.A. treats us to T-shirt weather for the occasion, and we get it all done in cheerful silence.

It’s one more chance for me to pretend to be more selfless and heroic than I actually am. Piotr Nikolaievitch Rasputin, rescuing my sister by lifting heavy things. Spasiba, little snowflake. I think the pose is starting to wear out, though. I think we both feel it. This whole living situation was born of necessity and duress and now that the pressure’s off, I think she and I need to not hang out for a while. Extended proximity isn’t something my family’s historically great at. We’re cave-dwellers, hoarders of personal space, boundary aficionados, closers of bedroom doors. Or maybe that’s just me, and I want to think everyone else in my family is that way so I can feel OK about being a misanthrope.

But I like the resonance of my sister moving out the day football season ends. As we’re moving her stuff, I’m thinking about writing about moving her stuff, and how it’ll be a callback to Week 11, the week she moved in. In a lot of ways, I think that was the best installment of this series; it’s the point where this column seemed for a second like it might take wing in some kind of novelistic way and develop a narrative arc over and above me learning to care about sports non-ironically. Because that’s not a narrative arc, in and of itself — not a load-bearing one, anyway. That’s the problem with these last few columns, I think — it’s just me going back and forth on the question of whether my engagement in the mighty Bengals of Cincinnati is sincere. Which is not really a riveting question, y’know? Nor is it one I’m prone to asking myself about my engagement with, as is the case with “Citgo.”


So I take notes in my phone between box-burdened trips from the van to the apartment — things to put in the column when I write it. The blind neighbor lady negotiating the stairs, her cane ticking on the Spanish tile, the way I waited in vain for her to say something Lynchian on her way out the door. The smell of new paint hurriedly applied. Colossus’s middle name. You never know what’s going to seem important later, or resonant, or richly metaphorical. Or what won’t — the whole thing with the hot tub (Week 12, a.k.a. “The One That Was Way Too Long and Kind of Read Like Dave Barry Novelizing Zabriskie Point“) seemed like a really great visual metaphor for some kind of self-chosen isolation while it was happening, but I knew even as I was writing it out that it didn’t really track. I had hot-tub water in my left ear until Christmas, and every time it sloshed around, it reminded me of how badly that column didn’t work.

I’ve talked before in this column about football making my life confusing and strange, but that’s not really true; it’s only writing this column that’s made my life confusing and strange. I knew every week I was going to have to file some ostensibly about-football dispatch, and that the more I wrote about things other than football, the less time I’d have to spend talking about actual in-game events — something I’m really not good at — so I found myself trying to make things happen in order to write about them. I came at every situation with an ulterior motive: This could be good for the column. This — whether it was Pasadena or the pumpkin patch or letting my sister come live with me — will keep you from having to think of something new to say about Andy Dalton’s struggle-face. I wasn’t necessarily doing things I wouldn’t have done ordinarily, but now it felt like I was doing them for dishonest reasons — and not just because I was fairly cavalier about giving people speaking parts in these essays whether they wanted to be in them or not.

At one point while my sister was staying with us, I went downstairs to my office, ostensibly to write, and instead I watched Jim McBride’s 1967 pseudo-documentary David Holzman’s Diary, starring L.M. Kit Carson as David, a young man life-and-relationship-derailingly obsessed with capturing his own existence on film. McBride and Carson (credited as screenwriter) nailed most of reality TV’s central paradoxes four years before the birth of Eric Nies — and 12 years before Albert Brooks made Real Life, which makes similarly so-prescient-they-now-seem-no-duh-obvious points about “reality” as a pseudogenre and is maybe funnier than Diary but doesn’t cut nearly as deep.

In the best scene in McBride’s film, David’s friend Pepe, an artist played by Lorenzo Mans, paces in front of a mural of himself while grimly indicting David’s whole project. “You don’t understand the basic principle,” Pepe says. “As soon as you start filming something, whatever happens in front of the camera is not reality anymore. It becomes part of something else. It becomes a movie. And you’ve stopped living, somehow, and you get very self-conscious about anything you do … And your decisions stop being moral decisions and they become aesthetical decisions. And your whole life stops being your life and starts becoming a work of art — a very bad work of art.”

This was the real reason I sucked at football, by the way. I was always looking at myself looking at it. I never had one moment of real emotional abandon where I could shut off the processing and ironizing and note-taking voice long enough to meet football on its own dumb terms, and that makes me a failure at this, because there was an aspect of the process that I wouldn’t let myself experience. I never really accessed the joy because I couldn’t stop bagging-and-tagging it. I pulled up to the scene with my feelings missing, like some low-rent Spock.

Obviously, the only thing more self-indulgent than turning a series of columns about football into a serialized LiveJournal is writing a column about the thought process that led to those columns coming out the way they did; on the other hand, if I don’t speak for white guys in their 30s who have some trouble living in the moment, who will? Where is our parade, other than, like, everywhere?

My initial plan was to fly to Cincinnati for this week’s playoff game against the Texans, ask Twitter to direct me to the most insane foam-finger-waving Bengals bar full of the stripiest-faced alcoholics, and watch the action unfold in the company of my chosen brethren, who would either receive me as their king or hate me or not care who I was. Then I realized this would mean flying to Cincinnati in January, probably on a day when it was 60 degrees in Los Angeles. But I wish I’d gone. Honestly, what I really wish is that I’d gone a year or so ago, so that I could’ve seen the pregame crowd-hyping video at Paul Brown Stadium before they changed it. I didn’t know about it until the film critic Nick Pinkerton noted its demise here. Here’s how Pinkerton described it in 2011:

“A fearsome Bengal tiger, strolling through the same jungle that Contra takes place in, follows franchise founder Paul Brown, who’s inexplicably dressed like Indiana Jones, into an obscure Incan temple decorated with frescoes of Boomer Esiason and Anthony Munoz (the part where the camera wheels towards the mural of Brown and his eye twinkles would be enough to kill a weaker man.) The tiger then strolls onto a football field populated by Tecmo Super Bowl players, who are understandably cowed; suddenly, the beast catches a glimpse of the visiting team’s banner and—possibly possessed by the avenging spirit of Brown—tears the opponent’s logo asunder with a mighty paw, at which point the crowd, such as it is, goes apeshit.”

Which is a wonderful description, and yet somehow does not fully capture how magical this video is. It’s rare that you see the cinematic grammar of “Please Visit the Lobby for Refreshments and Lasers” movie-theater pre-rolls used to promote anything other than popcorn and the importance of turning off your pager — rare and amazing. Access the joy below:

“It’s about how you suck at everything, or you think you do, but you’re actually better than you think you are,” my sister said, explaining the themes of this column — the one about the pumpkin patch, specifically, but really the whole thing — to me better than I’d ever been able to explain it to myself. That was in November, the night she showed up on my doorstep with a backpack. She’d called first, but I let it go to voice mail, even though nobody calls at 11:30 at night unless it’s important, because I was doing the dishes, because I didn’t feel like picking up my phone.

I won’t attempt to top that insight; I’m also not going to try to land this thing on some reverse-engineered epiphany about the new respect I’ve developed for televised sport’s role in American life or whatever — I won’t insult you. Whenever I’ve tried to do that in these pieces, I always feel like Daniel Stern trying to put a kicker on a Wonder Years — “As obnoxious as Wayne was, he was still my brother,” that sort of thing.

If you want elegiac, though, play the Creation song linked below while you read the rest of this. Picture one of those prestige-HBO-drama season-ending montages: Me at Ye Rustic, watching the game, quietly face-palming. The bartender wiping something down, thinking about how she should quit, open that restaurant she keeps talking about. My sister in her new apartment, putting dishes in a cabinet. Andy Dalton, throwing the ball away with all the conviction of a man dropping an unwatched Netflix movie in a mailbox. I love those montages. They’re about the illusion of closure, which is all closure really is.

I should talk about the game, I know. As hard as I tried from week to week to avoid talking about the parts of football where men try to get the ball and fall down, it still always annoyed me when people said these pieces weren’t about football at all. I thought they were way more “about football” than I’d ever imagined they’d be.

It was kind of a terrible game, for what it’s worth — a terrible game between two terrible teams whose fortunes no one really cares about. The Bengals looked like they’d woken up in some kind of Final Destination scenario, some flash-sideways reality — they weren’t supposed to have survived into the postseason, and in order to restore the balance of the universe, they knew they’d have to die. (The postseason is not the Bengals’ home dimension. The last time they went to the Super Bowl, MTV’s live pre-show featured a performance by the Bangles.)

I watched at Ye Rustic, with my friend Niels Bohr and about eight strangers, who maybe had some fantasy-based rooting interest in Houston quarterback and real-life Danny Hoch character Matt Schaub, or maybe who just didn’t want to stop watching football quite yet.

Ye Rustic had the game on without sound; somebody’s iPod supplied terrible songs as grim commentary. The Gin Blossoms start bleating “Found Out About You” around the time Connor Barwin (the man who christened the Texans’ defense “Bulls on Parade,” last seen starring alongside Bun B in print ads placed by the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau to advance the notion that “Houston Is Hip”) smacked the ball out of Andy Dalton’s hand like a lunch tray; Duran Duran’s “Come Undone” (seriously) as A.J. Green dove unsuccessfully for an overthrown Dalton pass that could’ve turned the game around; Roxy Music’s “More Than This” as a sideline camera panned across the Bengals looking hollow-eyed and broken.

“They don’t have the faces of a bunch of guys who are about to score 10 points and get back in this game,” Niels Bohr observed. This was true. They had the faces of a bunch of guys contemplating the fact that they could be back in the Queen City in time for Downton Abbey if they got this over quickly. They’d stuck around too long, and it was time to let go. I knew exactly how they felt.

Filed Under: Cincinnati Bengals, Houston Texans, NFL

Alex Pappademas is a staff writer for Grantland.