Super Bowl Monday

A guided tour of America via televisual sport.

Think of it as cultural introspection. Football for fun and insight. 

Don’t be afraid.

A Tale of Two Harbaughs, Two QBs, & Two Linebackers

9:01 a.m. Monday. This is when you watch Super Bowl XLVII if you’re in China and you live two bus stops from Jimmy D’s place, where this wild-eyed NFL evangelist subscribes to Game Pass. (The game started at 7:30 our time, but we’re not crazy.) While Mad Jim puts the final touches on his breakfast burritos, we wait for the alleged gang to arrive. (Brackets like this, in this tangled story, usually mean that I got thinking more about this stuff once the Super Bowl had settled a bit in my mind. It has taken a few days. There’s a lot to think about. Note: this post gets long. Sit back. Relax.)

9:11 a.m. Bad Jim just burst my bubble. This telecast is likely pre-cut. There’ll be no pre-game, but then I’ve had enough in my ill-spent past of talking heads and pre-game hype, and Grantland’s Bill Barnwell and crew have given me all I need of pre-apocalyptic analysis. (If you promise to come back, I will link you to this great sports and pop culture site. But no pride-of-America national-anthem-as-sacrament? No over-indulgent commercials, no insert-hyphenated-adjective-here  half-time show?!) I wanted the whole experience. I wanted to see what the brightest, most creative minds in the Excited States of America have made to mould and incite our consumer purpose. Bring it to me, TV!!

9:15. Burritos chewing, game on. I’ve read much more – he’s been an introverted flashpoint for pigskin opinionating – about the Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco than I’ve seen, which basically amounts to their AFC championship beating of the New England Bradys, and this opening series. He throws beautiful balls, so fluid, so confidently commanding. Baltimore is off and throwing. It doesn’t look like the constipated, conservative, No Fun League Super Bowls that I got tired of in the 90s and early 2000s. (Our little-brother Canadian Football League’s Grey Cup championship was routinely a better game than the Hyper Bowl. But enough of Canuck chauvinism.) But it’s going to be all football, which I’m adjusting to. I guess I can watch the commercials later if I really want to. Nearly $4 million to buy 30 seconds, I’ve read. What a world.

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Plastic! It’s All Plastic!

I grew up, unbelievably, in an age that was largely BP: Before Plastic. By the time my age was being expressed in double figures, things plastic were becoming much more common. In the early 70s, somewhere, the poet Shel Silverstein was already complaining about the plasticization of life, including the artificially enhanced curves of women, as I recall. (It’s all plastic!)

Plastic. Plastic. Plastic. (Write it often enough, and it starts to look as odd as its ubiquity actually is.) I’m sure there are lots of plastic things I have appreciated, but I’m having trouble thinking of them at the moment. Okay. Frisbees. Vinyl record albums. Yes, and those milk crates that were so good for storing albums, or anything else. But plastic is making me crazy. I’m suddenly plagued by noticing it just about everywhere: in the absurd amounts of packaging on nearly everything we buy, and in the piles of food and drink containers thrown by nearly every roadside. Plastic has been a useful invention, I guess, and it had better be. The stuff hasn’t been around long, but it lasts pretty much forever.

Imagine its invention. Imagine the wonder and excitement of materials scientists who, in ways that mystify me, found they could manipulate the chemistry of petroleum and create tough, sometimes flexible, easily shape-able materials. “Look, we can make anything!” they must have shouted. They took oil and made Plexiglas. (Hockey was happy, and basketball fans didn’t have sightlines blocked by the backboard anymore.) They made Baggies. They made Tupperware. They made car bodies and clothing and, let’s not forget, medicines, too. And they made plastic grocery bags by the BILLIONS, and who ever thought of where we were going to put all these nearly indestructible do-dads? Love is bliss, say I – it’s ignorance that’s blind. “Without vision, the people perish,” says the Old Testament scripture. Aboriginal wisdom, long ignored or suppressed, wags a knowing finger at our cultural obliviousness by reminding us to consider the effects of decisions for seven generations to come. Seven generations. We can’t wait seven months for “New and Improved!!”

And so now I think about plastic every time I go grocery shopping, anything shopping, and I try hard not to buy unnecessarily overpackaged stuff. Why do we need so much plastic crap around simple products? Answer: we don’t. Often it’s mainly for marketing and advertising purposes. Plastic containers give good surfaces to stick logos and contests and shiny colours and cute characters to. And plastic grocery bags, well, how did we ever get along before they were invented? In Ontario, I’ve read, we use about seven million of ‘em every day of the year. Where do they go? Ever wonder? (Leaving aside the ones that festoon the trees on windy days in fall and winter.)

Grocery bags are a big deal, suddenly. Ireland makes customers pay for them, has for years. San Francisco banned them completely last spring, and tiny Leaf Rapids, Manitoba is now the first Canadian municipality to say NO MORE. At my house, we console ourselves a little by re-using them in our kitchen garbage catcher, but we’re trying to avoid them when shopping. Cloth bags sit in our car trunk, and I sometimes remember to take them into the grocery store. (I always forget when I walk over, though. Mindfulness!)

I just came across another good reason to avoid plastic bags, besides the overflowing landfills and the little white ghosties blowing around every street and field. It was a bag from one of those big stores in every mall in every city: Athlete’s World. We’ll leave aside my curmudgeonly complaint about an allegedly “athletic” enterprise that caters mainly to style-addicted teens. Or maybe I won’t, because of this message that I read on an AW merchandise bag:

Warning: Wearing contents in bag may cause increased confidence and style leading to baggin’ on your friends for lookin’ all fugly.

Yes, that’s what it actually says. Translation: “Yo, young minds! Check it out! Buying your clothes at The Right Place will suddenly make you A Good And Worthy Person. ‘Cause that’s what happens, y’know. Human value comes from what you buy and where you buy it. So BUY it!”

And this ol’ English teacher won’t even comment on the contraction of a putdown and a vulgarity that results in “fugly”. Let’s just say this: if thoughts about the lasting curse of plastic garbage don’t make us clean up our act a little, maybe the toxic messaging on some of those bags might. (Though I doubt it. That was a snappy conclusion, in a plastic sort of way, but it’s a vain thought. But wouldn’t it be useful to think about where that bag is seven month, seven decades, from now. It’s a fugly thought, and now it’s all yours.)

When is Enough Enough?

Some great things land in my Inbox. Here are a couple of recent examples, and links that can get you more where they came from…

I’d never heard of Gary Tyler until recently. I’d never heard of Jocks for Justice, either, but there is a group of mainly ex-athletes – only Etan Thomas, a forward for the NBA’s Washington Wizards, is an active jock activist – who are standing up for what appears to be one of the great miscarriages of justice in American history. Gary Tyler, in 1974, was riding a bus with other black students to a newly desegregated high school in Louisiana. When the bus was attacked by a white mob, one white teen ended up shot to death. Tyler remains on death row in the notorious Angola prison for being, as a New York Times writer has recently uncovered, simply “the wrong color in the wrong place at the wrong time”. Amnesty International has flagged the case. Human rights and judicial reform activists are on the bit, too, as are Tommie Smith and John Carlos (the “Black Power” saluters from the Mexico City Olympics of 1968) and other sports notables. Dave Zirin, a writer whose beat is the social and political edge of sports, tells the whole story, with appropriate outrage, here.  It’s a quick but worthwhile read.

Another writer, no less passionate but more measured in his approach, is the noted American environmental crusader Bill McKibben. He’s not just a tree-hugger, although he loves the forests and trails. He’s one of the world’s most thoughtful contributors to the big discussions of how we should live, how we can remain in harmony with our highest human values and with the rest of creation. I first read McKibben in a short article in Utne magazine on how to survive (and more) the all-out consumer assault that our “holy season” has become. It was called “The $100 Christmas”. I had somehow missed his first book, The End of Nature, which was nearly 20 years ahead of its time. It was perhaps the first widely read discussion of the drastic effect on global ecology and climate that has been caused by our industrial excess. I heard McKibben recently at an Ottawa conference of the Sierra Club of Canada. He was thoughtful, he was extremely sobering, yet somehow he managed to be encouraging at the same time. And what a graceful writer!

If you have some time to read great writing that will change (or at least stimulate) your mind, try McKibben’s piece in the spring ’07 edition of Mother Jones magazine. It’s called “Reversal of Fortune”, and it begins this way: “For most of human history, the two birds More and Better roosted on the same branch. You could toss one stone and hope to hit them both…” In other words, the human quest to achieve or acquire more – more food, more invention, more control over our circumstances – has generally served to make life better. But as McKibben notes here, and in his new book Enough, we have hit the stage in human civilization where the desire and attainment of MORE of everything has stopped being beneficial and has become the source of many of our most threatening problems. It’s intelligent but superbly readable, and it won’t leave you in despair. There are things we can do to make our lives BETTER. (If you’d like to read more about this – and this is a case where ‘more’ and ‘better’ still DO roost on the same branch – please click here for more McKibben. Always a good thing.)