13 Jul

A Theory about my World Cup Watching

Here’s something that occurred to me a few weeks ago: All else being equal, if I lived outside of the US, I might not love the World Cup as much as I do.

I recently read about some of Jorge Luis Borges’ opinions on soccer; he didn’t like it. According to Shaj Mathew, writing at New Republic, Borges’ “problem was with soccer fan culture, which he linked to the kind of blind popular support that propped up the leaders of the twentieth century’s most horrifying political movements.” Borges was an Argentinian, who witnessed firsthand the Dirty War and the rise of a fascist government—horrifying political movements—so it makes sense that “he was naturally suspicious of his countrymen’s unqualified devotion to any doctrine or religion.” He feared that nationalism seems to go hand in hand with soccer. “Nationalism only allows for affirmations, and every doctrine that discards doubt, negation, is a form of fanaticism and stupidity.” I just want to pause and digest this last comment. Nationalism only allows for affirmations; you’re either with us or against us; love it or leave it.

Franklin Foer uses the term tribalism instead of Nationalism, but he illuminates exactly what freaked Borges out when he describes how in the “2002 World Cup [held in South Korea], there was a deadly riot in Bangladesh between fans of Argentina and fans of Brazil.” Or how “support for Rangers [over the Celtics in Glasgow, Scotland] has become a means for venting a sort of lingering Catholic hatred.” (Apparently, fans have adopted the Rangers as the Protestant team, and even wear orange despite the team’s colors being blue, white, and red.)

Indeed, soccer somewhat regularly brings out the worst kind of us vs. them mentality. A really great example of the nationalism inherent in soccer comes from Diego Maradona’s description of Argentina’s victory over England in the 1986 World Cup. In 1982, there was a brief 10-week war between the UK and Argentina over the Falkland Islands, off the coast of Argentina. Four years later, the Argentine team beat England in the World Cup in Mexico. Maradona writes in his autobiography, “It was as if we had beaten a country, not just a football team. Although we had said before the game that football had nothing to do with the Malvinas War, we knew they had killed a lot of Argentine boys there, killed them like little birds. And this was revenge.”

I could give a lot more examples, but suffice to say soccer is prone to disturbing tribalism. So I think Borges has a point.

And yet, there’s something pretty appealing about that level of passion and belonging. When I lived in Ecuador, we were drawn into the soccer fervor a little. When they beat Argentina, all of Quito erupted into ecstatic celebration. I remember watching the game at a restaurant and seeing a guy jump up at a near-goal moment and shout “Fuera Lucio,” a reference to the very recent ousting of corrupt president Lucio Gutierrez. It was a joke, but still, the link between pride in the national team and pride in the citizenry’s patriotic ouster of an asshole made a lot of sense. And it felt genuinely patriotic. In fact, one thing I noticed when living in Ecuador was that people there were very aware that the government did not necessarily represent the citizenry—hence, despite the widespread unpopularity of Bush, who was the US president at the time, Ecuadorians did not look at me as a de facto supporter of him. They didn’t judge people by their political leaders. Consequently, they seemed to have a strong sense of what ties them all together, and that bond exists quite apart from politics, or rather in spite of politics. On a regular basis, I heard the term “La Patria” thrown around. It means homeland, fatherland, and is rooted not in politics but in heritage.

I have to admit that back here in the states, I’m soured on the term patriotism because it has been so co-opted by those with political motives. It’s oft-referenced by knee-jerk “love it or leave it!” types or by politicians looking to gain an emotional foothold among those who remember when patriotism meant something other than supporting the Patriot Act.

And my level of tribalism/patriotism/nationalism has, at least in the majority of my adult years, been mitigated by an awareness that nationalism is kind of dumb. I mean, in this country, we all came from somewhere else (footnote 1), and relocating to other parts of the country is so common, at least amongst the educated classes of the Midwest, that we almost all recognize the absurdity of regionalism, the cousin of tribalism and nationalism (I have very good friends in Seattle, Portland, Denver, NYC, Alaska, Minnesota, and Boston).

So I take our nationalism with a grain of salt.

Actually, maybe it’s worth distinguishing between nationalism and patriotism. If Nationalism is a relatively unquestioning support of the political state, especially as it compares to other political states, then patriotism is merely a love of one’s own homeland and doesn’t necessarily equate to a blind, untested preference over other people’s homelands or to any real competitive or comparative m.o.

For me personally, I find it very easy to have little stake in the winner or loser of the World Cup. The US is never a contender. And in some ways, that assuages the potential for tribal identification or a competitive/comparative nationalism. I get to watch and root for other nations. And if/when I have less stake in who wins, my spectating becomes a matter of appreciating the athleticism on display and the story that develops over the course of the 90- or 120-minute game, rather than personal identification with the struggles of my people.

In other words, soccer is decidedly not tribalist for me. And I think that has a lot to do with my being an American.

Watching soccer feels foreign, worldly, like vacationing in Europe. In fact, it reminds me of watching the European championship when my wife and I honeymooned in Ireland. And coincidentally, just as I was in the midst of writing down these thoughts, I came upon an article in the most recent Harper’s magazine written by a guy named Simon Kuper, author of Soccernomics, who says, “Soccer—especially European soccer—makes American fans feel like cosmopolitans.” He goes on to say that American soccer fans “tend to be Democrats, even though sports fans overall lean Republican.” That jibes pretty well with the very unscientific observations I’ve noted on Facebook.

My theory is this: because my consumption of the sport is based not on fanaticism and tribalism or other political subtexts, I am both free of some constraints that might otherwise determine my preferences and ignorant of some information that might otherwise deepen my attachments. I’m a tourist. I’m a visitor. I vacation in the country, love it, and leave with my good memories intact. Were I, like Borges, to live in soccer-land, I’m not sure I would like it as much. It just might reek of politics a little too much.

(footnote 1: except for Native Americans, who are among the most impoverished and historically trod-upon groups in this country. And in fact, it’s sort of “patriotic” to celebrate the revisionary history in which European settlers sat down to feast with the Native Americans, which just goes to show the very shaky foundations upon which American patriotism is built.)

12 Aug

Shakespeare and the First Year of My Daughter’s Life

About a month ago, in early July, we went with a friend to see Hamlet at American Players Theater, an hour’s drive away. It wasn’t the first time we’d been away from Cora for her bedtime routine, but it was still new enough to us that we felt some trepidation in leaving her. One might say we felt a little like the watchmen at the beginning of Hamlet—a bit on edge.

APT’s production actually put their medieval Danish guards on stage prior to the play’s start; they looked nervously into the imagined darkness of the audience and provided all of us with a fun distraction. We talked about how hot they must have been in their leather armor, and I quipped something like, “Spoiler alert: they’re going to see a ghost.” Someone else answered back, “Uh-oh. I hope it all ends up okay.”

I imagine that most people who go to a Shakespeare play know the entire plot of the story they’re about to watch. They usually did in Shakespeare’s time; very few of his plots were original, but that didn’t stop the Elizabethan audience (just as it doesn’t stop modern-day audiences) from going to see the ever-compelling struggle between a character and his pre-determined fate. Indeed, the central tension of a tragedy lies in the fact that the characters—whether or not they know the course of events they will soon face—are not content to passively endure those events. That is to say, the central tension of tragedy is fate v. free will.

In Hamlet, this tension is spelled out with particular eloquence in the famous “To be or not to be” speech. Yes, it is eventually a speech about whether Hamlet should kill himself, but the driving question is “whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer/ the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,/ or to take arms against a sea of troubles,/ and by opposing end them.” Should we fight our lot in life or should we accept our position and all the accompanying suffering that comes with it?

This existential question is at the root of much literary art. “The best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry.” “Do not go gentle into that good night.” “You can’t repeat the past.” And so on. Small person vs. large force outside of our control. Some call that large force fate; some call it destiny; some call it fortune; some call it God. At one point, in Act 5, I think, Hamlet says, “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends/ rough-hew them how we will.” We might have some small control over “hewing” the shape of our lives, but ultimately, God shapes them. Or fate does. Or whatever.

Go back another 600 years or so from Elizabethan England and you’ll find the Beowulf poet making similar observations about “the shape of things to come” (a phrase repeated throughout the poem). For the only partially-Christianized medieval Englanders, the force that determined one’s fate was a divinity called Wyrd, who embodied a pretty sophisticated concept of how the individual interacts with the universal. (Read more here.) Wyrd is the basis of Macbeth’s weird sisters, by the way, who prophesy Macbeth’s rise to kingship at the play’s beginning.

But let’s come back to the present. After the play, while we were driving back to Madison from Spring Green, we came upon what appeared to be a horrible accident. We saw multiple rescue vehicles blocking the highway—police cars, fire trucks, an ambulance—and we were detoured to a little oxbow of a road that brought us back to US-14 a quarter-mile later. As we were turning for the detour, my passenger seat friend said, “Oh, no! There’s a motorcycle. I don’t want to look.” We knew, of course, that motorcycle accidents on a rural highway at 11:00 at night seldom turn out well. We were dealing with a likely fatality. So for the next several minutes, we didn’t say much.

This sort of ruminative silence has hit me frequently of late. It’s not that I go around quietly contemplative all the time; it happens more like this: I’m carrying my baby on the sidewalk in front of my house and I get a flash of a what-if. What if I tripped right now? Or I prognosticate. What if, three years from now, while riding a balance bike, my daughter drifts into the road in the two-second period when I’m not watching her closely? Or what if after 13 years of staying physically safe and sound, she gets cyberbullied by a bunch of preadolescent shitheads?

Thoughts like these cycle through my head sometimes half a dozen times a day, sometimes just a couple times a week, and they break down into two major categories: fear of harm coming to my child (illustrated above) and astonishment at the unknowability of the future (What hobbies will she choose? Who will she become? What will she look like?). Occasionally, these two categories overlap, as in What will be the defining hardship of her life come age 15—a hardship I will not be able to prevent?

Ultimately, I know safety is an impossibility. Tragedy, like shit, happens. There’s nothing you can do about it. That’s why it’s tragedy.

But still.

That guy on the motorcycle, the cause of our detour the night we returned from Hamlet? Turns out he hit a deer, which is exactly what I’m talking about here. Tragedy: a beast emerging from the woods, an act of nature, utterly outside of anyone’s control. Fortunately, the guy hadn’t been killed; he was in the hospital. But it turned out he was charged with a DUI, his fourth.

Now, maybe I’m being to harsh here, but upon learning this fact, I immediately lost some (not all) sympathy for him. Because suddenly his will was implicated; or, more specifically, a failure of his will. His decision—impaired though his decision-making apparatus was—to drive while intoxicated at 11:00 pm on a rural highway made the tragedy a little less pure, made his efforts to thwart fate/destiny/God/deer just a bit half-assed. Or less-assed than they could have been.

I certainly realize that one can’t be forever vigilant. Lord knows parenting breaks you down, battering you with sleeplessness and overwhelming you with decisions (Sleep train? Breastfeed?). And an infant is an interesting mixture of an opposing will and a force of nature. Here’s what I mean by that: an opposing will is a person with his own desires that sometimes gets in the way of your desires. A force of nature results from natural laws and/or natural chaos (gravity, cancer). A baby is both. She has a will, but she’s also a chain of natural cause/effect. She needs sleep, food, and comfort. She needs these things more than she desires them, more than she understands what desire even is. When she doesn’t have one of those, she cries or “gets fussy,” as parents of babies say. It’s not always easy to discern what she needs, however. In fact, it can drive you absolutely batty trying to figure it out and/or to manipulate circumstances such that her needs are fulfilled. It’s thus all the more imperative that you be in control of your own will because part of you will want to shake that baby.

I’m pretty patient when it comes to dealing with opposing wills. (You kind of have to be as a teacher since you’re at the epicenter of administrators, parents, and students.) But I’m not so graceful when it comes to dealing with unyielding forces of nature. And so Cora’s infancy was, for me, full of frustration. You put in an hour and a half of effort and get a 30-minute nap out of it. Makes you want to punch a wall.

But a parent has to be willing to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous babies and their allergies to cow’s milk or their refusals to nap. In fact, as Shakespeare scholar B.S. Field says, “a person’s capacity to withstand Fortune, to accept its buffets and rewards with equal thanks, was taken as a measure of a person’s right attitude, of his personal grace, not only in Hamlet, but in the Renaissance generally.” That’s from an essay on Twelfth Night, a play Shakespeare wrote right around the same time he wrote Hamlet, and yet another one that exposes the right attitude (in Viola, whose name refers to a flower thought to symbolize loving thoughtfulness) and the wrong attitude (in Malvolio, whose name means ill will) in our approach toward fate and fortune.

It’s not that this admonition to be graceful is all that groundbreaking a moral (see also: To live in harmony with the Tao; or to “Be still and know that I am God”). It’s something that most people understand on an intellectual level. (Kind of like how most people know how Shakespeare’s plays will turn out.) But as MacDuff says upon learning of the deaths of his wife and children and consequently being admonished to take it like a man, “I must also feel it as a man.” And this is what parenting does to you; it ups the stakes of your powerlessness in the face of fate and fortune and then it forces you to feel that powerlessness on a daily basis. The best we can do is say, “Uh-oh. I hope it all ends up okay.”