Our oven at home is the size of a P.O. box, so we go to the desert for Thanksgiving. I drive my wife and my daughter out. My mom flies down from San Francisco and drives in with my sister. We get a dinner reservation for Thursday at one of the fancy hotels out here — nobody's going to have to scrub cranberry-sauce crust off the good forks, it'll be great — and a budget-baller house with a pool and a hot tub. You can see some real high-definition mountains when you look up from the pool.
Eighty degrees by mid-morning. It's our first real cold-weatherish holiday in Southern California and we're steering into the weirdness of it.
That's Tuesday. We wake up on Wednesday and my wife's brother calls from the doorstep of our house in Los Angeles. He's supposed to be feeding the cats from now until Saturday. He calls to say he's found the hide-a-key box but we've forgotten to hide a key in it. Somebody has to drive all the way back to L.A. and drop a key off.
This is how in love with driving I am: The other night I was washing dishes — which I love doing for the same reason I love driving, because it's a casual form of brain engagement and you can listen to music while you do it — and Tom Cochrane's "Life Is a Highway" came on. I don't know — I guess I'd clicked the thumbs-up button on some other piece of really questionable pop schlock — "Sister Golden Hair" or Martika or "Your Love" by the Outfield, something like that — and Spotify concluded that I was a person who loved crap and clearly what I needed to hear next was the biggest and only hit by the Canadian Eddie Money.
I've heard rumors that other Tom Cochrane songs exist, but no one can prove it.
I've basically never listened to "Life Is a Highway" on purpose, and when I realized what it was I was about to skip ahead, but I stopped. And I gave myself over to it. And because I am now legally authorized to drive a car in the company of another licensed driver, because I am a driver, I suddenly understood "Life Is a Highway" like I never have before. All its clichés, about personal freedom and mobility and the open road and turning your back to the wind and going where the blues can't find you anymore and white-person do-rags and pretending to play electric guitar on a mesa? I am about that life.
Realizing you're about to hear "Life Is a Highway" and letting it happen is like peeing in your pants. You know you're going to be really uncomfortable in about 90 seconds but right there in that moment there's a feeling of incredible relief. It feels shamefully awesome.
So I drive all the way back to L.A. and I take my sister along, because for reasons of her own she's in a place where staring for hours at car-window scenery — a boring/enthralling movie, all montage, no characters — appeals.
We are free. We could go anywhere. We could go to the Indian casino and see Sinbad perform on a bill with the surviving members of Zapp. We could go to the outlet mall. We don't, though. We listen, twice in a row, to Paul McCartney and Linda McCartney's 1971 opus Ram, featuring "Heart of the Country," the one where Paul says he wants a horse and a sheep, and then a few verses later he still wants a horse but has a sheep, as if he or someone acting on his behalf has actually made a livestock acquisition during the chorus. You heard Mr. McCartney. He wants a sheep. What are you waiting for? Such a great record. ("C+" —Robert Christgau)
We make it to L.A. in no time. Check the cats. Hide the key. Turn back around. We listen to The War on Drugs. We listen to the first Little Feat album. We listen to Ennio Morricone's theme song from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly while driving through the San Gorgonio Pass windmill farm. My sister has a new phone and she rolls down the window and takes arty-blurry pictures of the windmills as we fly by. Tell 'em we're survivors.
I promise I'll talk about football in a minute.
David Thomson, the movie critic who does the Biographical Dictionary of Film — maybe the most compulsively readable reference book about anything ever, weird and idiosyncratic and infuriating, a life's work in itself — has a new book called The Big Screen, a history of movies that starts with a probably-crazy person named Eadweard Muybridge inventing the zoopraxiscope at the request of Leland Stanford in the 1870s and goes all the way up through Melancholia, Prometheus, Jack & Jill, Homeland, and a high-def broadcast of an August 2011 Chelsea-Norwich Premier League match on Fox Sports.
It's panoramic and obsessive and contains more interesting observations about Pretty Woman than you'd expect. Abraham Zapruder shows up in the Godard chapter. The section on Murnau invokes Jackass. I'm deep into it. It's a work of celebration that's suspicious of golden ages but shot through with a profound sense of loss, Thomson's thinking about the movies' inadvertent role in making us into who we are today, a whole culture constantly staring at various glowing rectangles. The book worries, he writes, "over the ways in which the multiplicity of screens now are not just metaphors for our isolation and feelings of futility in dealing with the world but a fuel for that helplessness." I marinate in his existential jitters. I check my phone again.
My mom and my sister and my wife and I float in the pool and try to teach my daughter to swim. She's mostly into falling off the raft and shouting "Blooper!" and cracking herself up.
When the sun goes behind the trees it gets cold and I get out and jump in the hot tub, because I am a rube and I still think hot tubs are awesome. I realize the first time I do it that if I sink below the lip of the tub, my daughter can't see me. She thinks this is awesome. I'm David Copperfield. For the rest of the weekend, whenever we're in the pool, my daughter will say "Daddy, can you disappear in your pool?" and I'll get out and go disappear in my pool.
"There is a dismissive school of thought," Thomson writes in a chapter on Italian cinema, "that says Italy in the 1930s was a land of vapid romances and society comedies, called 'white telephone movies' because the characters were invariably talking on their stylish phones. Even if that were so, it suggests a reason to be cautious (and expectant): the telephone in American pictures of the same era, white or black, is often a sign of life and fun. Films where people chat on the phone are always more promising than those where they read speeches to one another. And today the cell phone is a steady means of narrative progression and cross-cutting."
Cut to my sister with her white telephone out the window. Cut to me reading the beginning of Thomson's chapter on Jean Renoir, whose earliest memories were of seeing himself in pictures painted by his father, Auguste Renoir, "looking at these pictures in the late 1890s without quite realizing he had posed for them." These days, that experience is less unusual, Thomson notes: "Parents snap their children with cell phones and hold the bright pixels up to the infants' gaze, like a mobile to play with. 'There you are!' they say, before the babies possess these words. There we are. It begins to become a basic form of identity, the level at which existence registers. We are our image. Our reality has been split, and that may be as significant as the more famous bifurcation of the atom."
Cut to my wife and me, showing our daughter pictures of herself at this time last year, in Brooklyn, in a snowsuit.
Cut to my daughter at Thanksgiving dinner, at a restaurant table, contentedly watching Snow White on her aunt's phone.
Before that, on Thursday afternoon, I decide that for the purposes of this column I'm going to spend a big chunk of the day watching a bunch of football games.
Nobody in my family has ever known me as a person who cared about football, and yet they accept this, pretty much. I'm allowed to make this antisocial gesture (part of the reason we invented all these screens, it's obvious, is so that we wouldn't have to talk to each other all the time) because it's sports. The rules are different. It would probably seem a little weird if I went off and watched four hours of Three's Company reruns or C-SPAN or something.
Which actually would have been more entertaining than watching the Detroit Lions lose, in Detroit, to the Houston Texans. I watch with my daughter for a while — she likes football now, knows it as the show where the men try to get the ball and then they fall down. But she's lost interest and wandered off to play with her family of plastic dinosaurs by halftime. The halftime show is a performance by Detroit's own Kid Rock. Kid Rock and his whole band are wearing silver tracksuits. It's like a glimpse of a dystopian future where everyone's an asshole. Kid Rock performing a newish Kid Rock song called "Detroit, Michigan." It's a ghastly "Heart of Rock and Roll" meets "California Girls" kind of song that involves Kid Rock name-checking important regional musical phenomena in the most boilerplate Anthony DeCurtis fashion imaginable — "New York City's uptown grooves," "big fat backbeat D.C. funk," and, weirdly, "flossin' Austin and the Boston Pops" — and then singing about how awesome Detroit is, because of Rosa Parks and Eminem and American cars or whatever.
The game goes into overtime. Nobody can end it. It's just grueling. It's like watching Dan Dority fight Captain Turner.
And yet I'm happier watching football than I was when I wasn't watching football. I disappear in my pool.
Something about the impending-ness of Black Friday and Cyber Monday and Just Gather Your Loved Ones Together So They Can Watch You Put All Your Money In A Pile And Set It On Fire Because You're a Dumbshit Tuesday puts a stupid bug in my brain and I decide I want to buy a 50-inch TV. Instead of just doing it right away, though, I start telling my wife I'm going to do it. "Great," she says. We've had abstract conversations before about the current TV being too small for the room it's in. How we can't watch foreign films because her eyesight is bad and she can't read the subtitles on a TV the size of our current TV, which is 27 inches. And there are deals. Oh, such deals, on TVs that make our current TV look like something with which a mouse would furnish a dollhouse.
And technically I shouldn't feel the need to make my foreign-films argument or my tiny-furniture argument because she's already said "Great," but instead of just pulling my phone out and going ahead with the 45-second e-transaction that will cause a box containing an obscenely oversize plasma screen tee-vee set to show up on my doorstep five days from now, I keep announcing my intention to do it and volunteering justifications for which I have not been asked. I keep saying things like, "I just think it's time, y'know?"
What's happening is I sense that my wife is saying "Yes" to this TV plan when she means "No." I sense this because I am awesome at marriage. Eventually, around the fifth time I announce that I'm gonna buy the big TV she says, "Just buy the fucking TV," and we have the argument I've been poking at like unexploded ordnance all day. Most of it is Super-Real Married People Stuff that I'm not gonna talk about on the Internet. The part that's relevant here is that my wife has just watched me blow most of a whole day indoors watching sports and she's worried the Big TV will lead to this becoming an everyday thing. She grew up around menfolk with their sports-shows and their sports-yelling and their sports-aggression sports-related real-life-ignoring and their ass-grooved couches and their Yuengling-drowned Sundays and finds it all sad and lame to this day, and when I argue that we need a bigger TV she hears me basically saying I want a monolith-size sports-watching machine, that I want to be That Guy.
And more than anything, she resents me for wanting to make a That Guy–like decision that in turn forces her to be That Guy's Wife, the frowning lady in the big-box-store commercial whom That Guy is trying to talk into buying a bigger TV.
You've seen commercials; you know That Guy. He's a doughy man-child slob who just wants man-toys for his man-cave. And That Guy's Wife is a fun-crushing mommy-scold who wants to make That Guy go to a ballet about shoe shopping or whatever. These are fake archetypes of manhood and womanhood created and perpetuated by advertising, in order to make men feel like their meaningless consumer decisions are vital statements of personal agency. This was not how my wife pictured her life; she did not marry That Guy and has no desire to be That Guy's Wife.
The larger point here, though: My wife is worried about me watching too much sports. This was not even remotely on the radar as an issue 12 weeks ago.
This was supposed to be a column about me forcing myself to follow football, a sport I had not previously cared for or about, a sport I barely even understood. Somewhere along the way it became a column about me rooting for the Bengals ironically and now, if I'm being honest, it's about me rooting for the Bengals sincerely.
And if I'm being really honest, this week it's about me thinking maybe I might need a bigger screen for sports purposes.
The fight is like an incredibly stupid fifth-rate version of that scene from the undercover-cop movie where the undercover cop has been embedded too long and the lines between right and wrong have gotten blurry and the undercover cop's wife says, I don't even know who you are anymore. He's starting to scare her! He looks in the mirror. He's starting to scare himself.
Said legendary sportswriter Kurt Vonnegut: "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be."
Even as we're having the fight I'm thinking about how I'm going to write about it.
No, Janet says, nobody's sitting here right now. But she's got some friends coming, in a while. The subtext: I shouldn't get too comfortable.
No real chance of that. It's Sunday morning now and I'm at Ye Rustic Inn to watch the Bengals play the Raiders. The bar stool Janet's grudgingly letting me occupy is one stool away from a clot of Raider fans rocking silver and black. The Raider fans are already buzzed. Janet — white-haired, flinty, unmistakably enough of a regular she could save a seat for Elvis or Tupac if she felt like it and nobody could say anything — is also rooting for the Raiders.
Raider Nation, to the left and right. This'll be fun.
Some guy down the bar accuses Janet of giving me a hard time. Janet says, "What? I'm being nice," like there are times when she has not been nice, sure, but this is not one of those times.
"You're so argumentative even when you're being nice," the guy says.
The Bengals romp. They curb-stomp the Raiders. At Ye Rustic, the distinguished gentlemen from Raider Nation groan and empty pitchers. At one point, around the end of the first quarter, an onscreen stat informs us that the Raiders have rushed for eight yards to Cincinnati's 159. One of the Raider fans says, "When they find me hanging in my closet there'll be a snapshot of that. Eight fuckin' yards."
Cut to crowd shots onscreen: Raiders fans in their silver makeup and their Power Rangers–villain/Gwar-understudy outfits, looking bummed out.
And before long, the day takes on that aggro quality my wife finds so unappealing. She's not wrong.
Something good happens in the Bears game and the Bears fans gathered on the other side of the bar start to sing "Bear Down, Chicago Bears," and the Raiders fans yell Boo and Fuck the Bears and Raiderrrrrrrs and How long is this song? — and they're not wrong, either, at least about "Bear Down, Chicago Bears," which by the running-time standards of songs sung repeatedly in bars during sporting events is basically "Desolation Row."
So there's that beef, and then things get darker. The Bears game is blacked out on Sunday Ticket because it's being broadcast here in L.A. on local TV, but the Bears are thumping the Vikings so decisively that the local station cuts away to a different game. The Bears fans go nuts. Some poor defenseless male-modely-looking bar back has to get out the remote and search the channels in vain for their game, and this in turn throws the rest of the screens in Ye Rustic into chaos, because apparently there's some delicate satellite toggling required to get a whole morning's worth of NFL games going on all these different TVs at once. The bar back has to walk around changing all the channels back and he keeps landing on the wrong ones — normal-D instead of HD, or the Hallmark Channel, or an infomercial for a life-changing jowl-reduction procedure.
The bar back's sweating. He's blowing it. The bar's in open revolt. Somebody reads the channel-guide description on a TV that was showing the Steelers a minute ago and dryly asks the bar back, "Are we watching Ocean Mysteries, or what? Jeff Corwin's narrating."
The Raiders fans petition the bartendress to relieve the bar back of his remote-operating duties. They're mad at the bar back. They're mad at the Bears fans, who started all this, with their insistence that the bar back find their game.
"We should let Janet do it," the bartendress says. "Nobody argues with Janet."
Janet looks up, says, "Does somebody want to argue with me?"
I've been playing it cool, quietly relishing the Bengals' dismantling of the Raiders without letting the Raiders guys know that I'm the enemy. But you can't stay fully neutral in an environment like this. The vibe has gone dark. Janet's friends show up and Janet asks me to move down one, which means the dour gray-haired guy next to me, who's been facing the opposite wall watching the Steelers and has served up until now as a human DMZ between me and the Raiders guys on the end, has to move down one, too, and now there's a pillar partially obstructing his view of the Steelers.
From then on, every time he comes back from smoking cigarettes outside he accuses me of moving farther down, which is a lie. He's decided that I'm in Janet's party and we're in land-grab cahoots, the bunch of us. "I see you moved down again," he keeps saying. It starts to become A Thing between us and I wonder if I'm going to have to fight him, or Janet, whose friend really is, in point of fact, kind of edging into my personal space. I think I could take Steelers Dude — I got a good night's sleep last night and I haven't been ducking out at every commercial to suck on a cancer-binky — but I feel like Janet's an eye-gouger. Meanwhile, up on the TV, Bengals lineman Andrew Whitworth head-butts the Raiders' Lamarr Houston for tackling Andy Dalton post-whistle, and so begins a brawl that ends with Houston, Whitworth, and Raiders tackle Tommy Kelly being shown the door of Paul Brown Stadium by security.
Like I said, aggro. And 12 weeks ago I would probably have judged all these people fighting over screens. It's just football. The men try to get the ball and they fall down. Pump your brakes, everybody.
But I'm not an observer anymore. I'm embroiled. I'm part of this. And when the Bears fans got whiny about their game disappearing I didn't think, Fascinating — a breach of the unspoken social contract among sports fans that illustrates the delicacy of said contract. I thought, Jesus, give it up. Your game is not on anymore. Go home. You're ruining it for the rest of us.
I think us. Sports fans. Us. There I am.