My uncle Brad died Wednesday. He’ll be buried this weekend, and there’ll be a lot of talk about how hard he worked, because he did and because that’s the thing you say about a man where I’m from, but what I’ll remember is how he played.
I don’t mean the forms of play that are common where I come from – hunting, four-wheeling, that sort of thing – although he did more than his share of all of that. The play I will remember had to do with things that no one else I knew growing up would have thought to do. In my earliest memory of him, he is describing how he filed a peach pit, from a peach he’d eaten, to see if he could get it to sprout – it did; he grew a tree from it. “Who thinks to do something like that?” the child me thought. Is that a thing you can do?
He built a little old-fashioned car, from a kit, and drove it down to my parents’. He grew gourds and hung them up to dry and then painted them to look like geese and swans and things, because they were shaped that way.
For all sorts of things like this, he was the kind of person about whom you would say, if you were a typically practical rural Midwesterner, “He’s all the time doin’ somethin’.” The italics and the apostrophes aren’t right; I can’t punctuate it the way that it has to be said in order to be understood where I’m from. It’s one of those seemingly generic phrases that actually always means something very particular: the point is that the somethin’ is a thing that isn’t necessary, or practical, or possibly even advisable. It is an experiment, a lark, a moment of play.
He did work, a lot – I’m sure he had orders to fill when he died, at 82. More than anyone else I knew growing up, though, his work was play to him, too – he enjoyed it. He made teeth – like, dentures and partials, in a shop in his garage. He learned his trade in the military, in Germany, in the fifties. As he told it: one day he was part of a group of soldiers digging a ditch, in the heat, when an officer came by and asked if any of them would like to learn to make teeth – the military has all kinds of craftsmen, and this base needed a new false-teeth guy, apparently. “To Hell with this,” he thought, jumping out of the ditch and handing off his shovel, and that was that.
Beyond that, he made it clear in the way he lived that the point of working was to be able to play, and to give to his family. When I was in college he slipped me cash every time I saw him, despite my protests; he did not intend it for books. He had a heart attack in his late fifties and completely changed his eating habits and lifestyle, because he was smart about things and enjoyed life and wanted more of it, and he lived another 24 years. He was happily married – another distinguishing feature among the people I knew growing up, to be completely frank – and still, on my way to the funeral now, I cannot fathom seeing my aunt without him, because they were always together. And because they were happy and inseparable they have been my mental image of my wife and I growing old together, and now I have to go and look on our own inevitable bereavement. Is there a way to experience another’s death that is not, also, about our own?
He had a soft voice and an easy laugh, and now they’re gone, except that we all who heard them remember. And I have this: What I learned from my uncle Brad was to never, ever ask the question that dogs playfulness – “Well, now, why would you want to do that?” – as if everything we spend time on has to have a reason. For New Year’s I built what is essentially an outdoor closet in order to smoke a ham, and I never got to tell him about it, but he would have asked me how I did it, not why.
I think that in an ideal world, there is no “becoming” a fan. To really be a fan, many people would say, it should be hard to remember when you were not a fan and completely impossible to remember the exact moment when you became one. Team loyalties may be grounded in randomness — the city you/your parents/a girl you once wanted to impress were born in/live near/once drove through — but they take root early, no later than when you chose a college (which hopefully you didn’t choose just because of a sports team). Real team loyalty is a pre-rational thing, because team loyalty based only on reason is a) called band-wagonning — “this team is good, therefore I like them” — which is a heinous sin and b) is fated to eventually starve to death. True fandom will be forced to survive long stretches during which it has nothing rational to feed it, is in fact defined by its survival of these long stretches. Sometimes your team will suck, and you will have to tune in and hope and live or die by every bungled play anyhow, and there is nothing rational in that.
I do not live in an ideal world. I have never had an NFL team, ever. I grew up near Columbus, Ohio, and I never chose the Bengals or the Browns. I went to school in DC, and the Potomac Drainage Basin Indigenous Persons never caught my attention, possibly because they were really, really bad at football during my time in DC. We moved to Chicago, and the Bears were, well, the post-1985 Bears, bad but amusingly so, and I watched a lot of games and I cheered for a lot of Devin Hester punt returns in a lot of bars with real die-hard fans, but I never once considered myself one. This was mostly because being a Bears fan seemed like a special kind of thing, a group you couldn’t just join. To be a true Bears fan, you have to be either born to it or ritually, personally, punched in the mouth by Mike Ditka. Sadly, neither of these things are true for me.
But as of yesterday, I live in Seattle, Washington. The Seahawks (est. 1976) are neither historically nor currently exceptional — they have no tradition of ineptitude or of excellence to present a barrier to entry for a would-be new fan. I cannot be accused of bandwagonning or of throwing myself under a bandwagon, hoping for pity (a challenge faced by, for example, any new Cubs fan). The Seahawks have no wagon. They are not good enough or bad enough to be a way of life — they are just some guys who play football for money. I enjoy watching people play football for money, and I think this enjoyment would be enhanced by caring, one game a week at least, who won. And so I am hereby announcing that I am now a Seahawks fan.
As of a few hours ago, I knew very little about the team — being perfectly average does that (to be honest, I couldn’t even remember who the Steelers dominated in Super Bowl XL), but now I am memorizing rosters. I am buying a hat. If one Russell Wilson stays in the starting QB position long enough to get his jersey in stores, maybe I’ll buy that.
Although there is some reason in this decision, as described above, I hereby renounce all claim to reason with respect to my fandom. This is like getting a tattoo of a lover’s name — makes sense at the time, but you know you gotta keep wearing it even if it stops making sense. As of now, I may be freely mocked when the Seahawks lose, and I will gloat when they win. I am theirs and they are mine — I will even learn to drop the occasional “we.” I do not do this lightly or temporarily — those words do not exist in the lexicon of true fandom. When and if we move from here, I will remain a Seahawks fan; I will say things like, “Yeah, I been a Seahawks fan since we lived in Seattle…” If this team is just average or beyond terrible for the foreseeable future, I will still be that guy with the hat, who thinks every game is winnable, who can recite the roster anytime, who pays attention to every draft pick, just because I chose to care, so that I will be ready when something great eventually happens.
Now with the idiosyncratic category “Lyric of the Year”
NB: You should probably listen to the tracks on youtube linked here soon, because, as far as I can understand it, very shortly this simple and entirely legitimate way of sharing things, thereby making them more popular, will be foreclosed by the powers that would actually benefit from that increased popularity. Learn more here.
Album of the Year
Every time I use that word now, I think of this exchange from “Community”:
“How old is he?”
“In his 30s I guess. He owns a landline and still uses the word ‘album'”
Well, I don’t have a landline. And the definition of “album” is sort of vague to me now — defined as “a collection of songs by the same artist released at the same time that I routinely listen to together,” my album of the year has to be
“This is our Science,” by Astronautalis
This guy is currently my best shot at being able to say “I saw him in a garage” when he’s selling out
stadiums legitimate indie venues. Listen to this song. And then listen to
Song of the Year
“Measure the Globe,” from the same Astronautalis album.
“There’s no Lord to forgive me / and physics is tricky / so all that I’m left with is you.”
I remember exactly where I was when I first heard this song, from the view of the street in front of me to the weather. I am a sucker for nostalgia. All of the best things consist of a few basic things put together — like, all of the best food (cheese, beer, wine, bread) is just a few things combined in varied ratios, across different scales of time. Music is like that, and nostalgia is like, you know, flour.
Okay, so some of the best songs have a ton of ingredients, electronic ingredients. Listen to this song without moving, I dare you. No, really, don’t listen to this song in a public place, unless you are the kind of person who is okay with dancing alone in public places. If you are currently drinking, you have already ignored this warning.
This is not, though, the most effective use of the Jonestown “death tape” in recorded music — this is still the most effective use of the death tape in recorded music. Scares the bejesus out of me.
Lyric of the Year
My personal favorite category.
From the song “Broken Promise” by Scroobius Pip.
I bought the Heartbreak Hotel / on my own with no investors /
Closed it down and opened the Fuck You Get Over it Bed and Breakfast
And it kinda rhymes on account of he’s British. I am in awe.
More to come…