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.
Erwin Schrödinger's in town, so we meet at Ye Rustic on Thursday night. The Bengals are playing the Eagles, and for some reason this historic contest of champions is being broadcast in prime time. Schrödinger and I are, respectively, the third and fourth people who show up to watch it unfold. We could have gone somewhere cooler and done something better, but I want him to see how I actually live, and while I'm not totally comfortable with what this says about me, this really is a pretty significant part of how I live these days — in the back of Ye Rustic with a notebook open, half-watching pro football and contemplating what I hope to gain by doing so. Besides, Schrödinger's taste in surroundings is even worse than mine, so he grasps the charms of the place immediately — the wood paneling, the aquarium-glow lighting, the on-point and prodigiously inked-up wait staff. "They look like retired Suicide Girls," he observes, which is totally true.
On Sunday my sister drives me to the bar so I can watch the Bengals play the Dallas Cowboys. "Well, I hope they win," she says. "But I also hope they lose, so you'll have something new to write about."
I don't say anything. She's just trying to be positive, and she's also the reason I'm not riding a bicycle. But in my head I curse her for hexing Cincinnati, who have won four games straight, who could pass the Steelers in the race for an AFC wild-card slot if they win this week, who are In the Hunt. I am now a person who thinks things like this. I am now a person who throws around the phrase "in the hunt," which is a stupid phrase and also maybe not grammatically correct. Why isn't it "on the hunt"? When in doubt on vexing usage questions, I'm with Ronnie Van Zant.
I have maybe lost perspective, a little bit. These are still the Cincinnati Bengals we're talking about. I have been warned and warned about investing my emotional capital here.
"WheelsUp ... Back to Cali on a business trip," the Cincinnati Bengals' Vontaze Burfict (born in Los Angeles in 1990) tells his 4,862 Twitter followers on Thursday. Between "WheelsUp" and "Back to Cali," he types three little Emoji airplanes, like a 15-year-old girl, but still: This is a pretty casually badass way to refer to a road game against the Chargers. There is, suddenly and improbably, something badass about the Bengals. They land in California having won three straight. Perhaps they walk through the San Diego airport in slow motion, wearing sunglasses, Battles Without Honor or Humanity looping in their heads, pulling rollie suitcases full of newfound purpose and confidence.
As for me, I head into Sunday badly in need of another win. It has rained for — this is a rough estimate — 97 days in a row. Hello, seasonal affective disorder, my old friend. Every day I listen to Randy Newman's "I Think It's Going to Rain Today," and it does. Randy is a prophet. Randy understands me. My entire existence in Los Angeles has been trackable on the Randy Newman spectrum. First I was all *, and then I was all **. I walk around my house (which, like all houses in Los Angeles constructed before 1996, is made entirely of drafts and spiders) wearing a Lebowski sweater unironically and eating peanut butter out of the jar like a raccoon. Even though you automatically fail at the Internet the minute you read the comments on anything, I read the comments on last week's football column and passive-aggressively favorite the ones that question my qualifications as a writer and a husband and the veracity of my professed emotional investment in the ups and downs of the Cincinnati Bengals.
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.
I agree to take the bullet. It's barely a bullet, though. I am a 35-year-old man with a learner's permit and I am in love with driving.
The Bengals beat the Chiefs 28-6 on Sunday. That's two in a row. E-mail from my dad, Sunday evening: "You have altered Bengals reality." No further message.
There are probably other explanations, but I accept that one. By observing the Bengals' situation in order to mock it, I've changed it. Basic quantum mechanics at work.
We'll come back to this in a minute. Or maybe we won't. Instead of going to the bar this weekend, I watch football at Werner Heisenberg's house. Werner Heisenberg promises to put the Bengals game on one of the TVs if it gets close, but it never does. I follow the Bengals' neat dismantling of the Chiefs on my phone while ping-ponging my eyes back and forth between Packers-Lions and Jets-Rams and eating everything in a bag of Jack Link's that is not explicitly labeled DO NOT EAT. The life of kings.
The Bengals win and increasingly I don't know who I am anymore. Afterward I shoot free throws in the yard and I'm almost relieved to learn that I still suck at basketball.
A few hours after the Bengals beat the Giants, I'm in the passenger seat of a blue rental car with Colorado plates, driving to Pasadena with my friend Enrico Fermi, half-listening to the Latin pop hits of yesterday and hoy on Exitos 93.9 FM.
I've known Fermi for 14 years. We've lived in a lot of the same cities — Boston, San Francisco — but almost never at the same time. You know that person you've known forever with whom you're able to instantly dial back in every time you see him, as if no time has passed, even though for whatever logistical reason he hasn't been part of your day-to-day life for years in between? That's Enrico Fermi.
I pretty much owe him everything. Literally — he was the first person to pay me to write something, which means that if there's a parallel timeline out there in which I’m a bitter B2B copywriter with a WordPress blog (no shots, bitter B2B copywriters; I respect the hustle), it's probably because that version of me never met Enrico Fermi. But I also owe him in a million harder-to-quantify ways. He introduced me to Teena Marie and Solaris and stayed friends with not one but two of my ex-girlfriends.
My mind was made up. I sat at the kitchen table and typed an e-mail to my friend Richard Feynman, whose name is not really Richard Feynman.
"I'm starting Matthew Stafford instead of Matt Schaub on Sunday," I wrote.
"This will end in blood and tears," Feyman replied. Then, after a minute: "Are you watching AM games at Ye Rustic tomorrow? Need a ride?"
"I always need a ride," I wrote back. "But you're not going to change my mind about this QB situation. Your team needs a shakeup."
It was Saturday night and I was drunk with power. Feynman had given me control of his fantasy team for a week so I could write about what it felt like to watch a day of football the way people in a fantasy league watch a day of football.
Bye Week for the Bengals. With the NFL trade deadline approaching (look at me, I'm a sportswriter now), it's a time for stock-taking, for an honest look at how we got here and what we could be doing better.
So here's what happened: I went to Vegas at the end of September, and ever since I got back I haven't been quite right.
I promise not to dwell on this. I went to Vegas, and sat in a seminar room listening to creative people talk about creating comics and movies, about the how and why of Making Things, and instead of coming back fired up to Make Things myself, I came back convinced that it was too late for me, that I'd allowed part of me that could once have Made Things to atrophy and die. But the specifics aren't that important. It was a slump, and every slump has the same arc. I wrote nothing of consequence and tortured myself about it. I starved myself of human contact — with my wife, with my friends, with the guy the landlord pays to come around and frown at the grass — because How's it going? was a question I didn't want to answer. I kept whatever was wrong with me to myself, like the guy who waits until the end of the gunfight to reveal that he's been gut-shot the whole time.
Holiday-obsessed movie director Tim Burton, on growing up in Burbank: "The only way you'd know it was a new season is if you'd walk into Sav-On or Thrifty's and walk down the aisle and see Halloween decorations or Christmas decorations The weather certainly didn't do it for you."
This is both true and not true. Los Angeles, I'm discovering six months into living here, does have seasons — you just have to dial into them a little. You have to learn to read the signs. A slight uptick in the dead-palm-fronds-in-the-street count, a tang in the air.
Or this: There's this homeless guy we see all the time in our neighborhood who looks exactly like Tom Hanks in Cast Away, minus the volleyball. L.A. has the most disturbingly vital-looking homeless people on the planet, and Cast Away is the most disturbingly vital-looking homeless person in L.A. — a white guy so tan you can barely see his tattoos, muscled like a piece of jerky. Cast Away walks up and down Sunset Boulevard all day — as far west as Sunset Junction, as far east as the Rite Aid in Echo Park — naked except for a pair of the most ragged jean shorts in the history of jean shorts. We're not talking normal cumulative jortwear here; Cast Away's pants look like the pants of someone who has recently been in an explosion or been turned back into a person after being the Hulk. Or both.
We are in Palm Springs, my wife and my daughter and I, in a rented house. Mostly I float in the pool like Peter Stormare in The Big Lebowski. I am a nihilist, I believe in nothing, I have access to an inner tube printed with the image of a rubber tire.
The rest of the time I drive my wife's car around. I'm a 35-year-old man with a learner's permit; this is the first time I've ever driven, and driving still feels like dreaming, the way I imagine flying would if you could do it. It's the desert; the streets are long and empty of cars. I pick a point on the horizon and drive to it as fast as I can. I blast music from when I was 16 and busy doing things other than learning to drive. I can move my family from location to location at great speed, while my wife, unaccustomed to being a passenger, frowns at the way the pool chemicals have melted the gel-nails off her fingers.
I can drive, and I am the world's greatest dad and the world's greatest husband. No, I don't have a mug. Cool don't advertise. The streets of Palm Springs already know. I pick a point on the horizon, where a wall of mountains shoots straight up at the edge of town, and I turn on Sugar's "A Good Idea" and the steering wheel button that gooses the volume is like a second throttle.
When I told my friend Richard Feynman (all names of real people in my I-suck-at-football coverage have been replaced with those of noteworthy physicists) (I already forget why I decided to do this), whose fault this column is, that I was going to be in Vegas over the weekend, he said, "You've gotta watch a game at a sportsbook and write about it."
So, OK: I'm at a kind of gambling-workstation with a temperamental touchscreen in front of me; a wall of LED screens showing an afternoon's worth of NFL football (and some horse racing, and a little golf) looms above me in the middle distance. I'm sitting just a few steps from the Hard Rock Hotel's casino floor, but I can barely hear the Pavlovian bleeping of the slot machines or the never-ending high-energy-hits-of-the-'70s-'80s-'90s-and-today playlist that blares in all the Hard Rock's common areas at all times; I've turned my back on packaged rock-and-roll fun to do some serious football watching with serious men. There's a bar, and occasionally a pregnant waitress in a T-shirt promoting Guns N' Roses' imminent Hard Rock residency makes drink-related inquiries down the row — it's Vegas and it's well past noon — but barring the occasional neglected half-full Bud Light bottle, everybody here seems to be on a strict utilitarian-fluids regimen: coffee, water, Monster Energy.
On Sunday my friend Richard Feynman took me out to drink and watch football at 10 in the morning. My friend Richard Feynman's name isn't really Richard Feynman, but I've decided to give every real person in my I Suck At Liking Football journal the name of a famous theoretical physicist, because this sport is still basically quantum mechanics to me. So on Sunday Richard Feynman's wife took their son to choir practice and (metaphors!) Richard Feynman and I went to football-church, in a sports bar on Vermont Avenue.
On any given Sunday (or Monday, or Thursday), your NFL Run & Shootaround crew will be gathered around multiple televisions, making inappropriate jokes and generally regressing to the mean. Catch up on all the NFL action right here.
RG3 and Newton's Law
In a lot of ways, the Cam Newton–Robert Griffin comparison makes sense. Each is an athletic, dynamic quarterback capable of making plays with his arm or his legs. Each has a Heisman Trophy to his credit, and each emerged from relative anonymity to claim it. And after yesterday’s 40-32 win for the Redskins, each has a stunning NFL debut to his credit.