Over the many years I've looked in the mirror, the same ashen expression of wan care has been there to greet me. There is a sinking face there, a boy turned into pale middle-aged man who seems to be looking through his reflection, over his shoulder for the next terrible, imaginary thing that threatens to ruin whatever piece of mind he possesses. Written into the contours of my face are the usual litany of avoidances, the fatty, reassuring foods, staying up late, alcohol, avoiding humanity except at work; we neurotics find ways to comfort ourselves with the very worst choices in order to stave off the pain of losing what little we imagine we never quite had.
Buddhism suggests rather strongly that what a human being needs most is found at the very seat of his soul. What he needs is already there; he needs only to call upon it through meditation and be present in a moment of acceptance of what already is. But having grown up with the mixed bag of ideologies and faiths belonging to the Western tradition, I have both a powerful sense of individuality and yet a deep sense that what I possess is intrinsically flawed. Perhaps if you dig into the DNA of people in Belgrade, Moscow, Munich, Glasgow and Everton, you will find this same worried look, the same basic absence of serenity. Some turn to religion to fill the space that the soul finds so cleverly absent. But I suspect that many like-minded people in all those places do as I have over the years and maintain an unconditional belief that somehow, someday, some way his football team (whichever football) will make it all OK.
It's an illusion. I felt elated when they beat the Patriots last night, but this morning I felt like killing people. I left a Starbucks this morning, suggesting within earshot, that I wanted to destroy all the Starbucks in Philadelphia, which (and I want to say this to anyone surfing the Internet at Homeland Security tonight) I do NOT intend to do. It's the understaffing, the chipperness of the barrista that really conceals a perceptible hostility, it's the ridiculously overrated food, the paralyzing range of beverages with names like no-whip macciato, two-whip latte, a vivano smoothy with a shot of expresso, a soy frappacino, a misto, a red eye, a creme brule latte, and other things that are probably also available at Dairy Queen, only with soy. All I want IS A MEDIUM COFFEE AND THE NEW YORK TIMES, DAMN YOU ALL. AND NO. I STILL HAVE NOT LEARNED WHICH SIZE WITHIN YOUR EXCESSIVELY COMPLICATED SIZING LINGO DERIVED FROM FAUX ITALIAN CONSTITUTES A "MEDIUM." YOU KNOW WHAT I WANT BECAUSE I AM USING OUR NATIVE LANGUAGE. GIVE IT TO ME.
I merely use this as example of how ephemeral and meaningless joy is when it is associated with something not intrinsic to our being. And when the Jets beat the Patriots 28-21 in the AFC Divisional Playoff (and I say this with a residual tingling sensation at the base of my scalp) I felt a euphoria that, all the same, could only last the week, if not a day. It's a hard truth we must all face. We are only as happy as our own willingness to accept and to seek serenity through understanding what constitutes the true realities of our existence. But then I look at this.
Well, enough of that. Let's just relish some of this happiness...
Let me begin with a confession: at times last night I might not have been rooting for the Jets quite as much as I was rooting for the Patriots to lose. Some of my New England friends (and my own Patriot bandwagon students!) seemed to approach this game with a haughtiness that was uncharacteristic of the New Englanders I knew at college back the late 1980's when I went to school up there. On days when we felt flush enough, my housemates and I would go a McDonald's in Providence whose walls were adorned with New England sports heroes of a distant time. There were faded images of Carlton Fisk, Bobby Orr, Steve Grogan, all sharing uncomfortable space with their only successful champion of the 80's, Larry Bird. And with bone spurs in his heel, Bird's star was beginning to fade. I felt sad and sympathetic for New Englanders. Aside from the NBA crowns, they never won anything that made them feel like winners.
And especially the Patriots - a team that didn't even manage a winning season in my four years at college. The Rhode Island live sports call-in Sunday night TV show with Chuck Wilson was a bleak, sad place to find yourself after the Patriots played miserably hours before. This may sound apocryphal, but the show actually fell into disrepair when my roommate managed to get through live and asked Wilson, "Hey Chuck, what's with the cheesey stache?" He created a monster. All the calls that followed week after week basically imitated him and digressed from there, and soon Wilson was gone. I think he went on eventually to have a good career on ESPN radio, so there we are. But the point was there was nothing to talk about in the New England autumn, except the premature end of the Sawx season and the start of the B's and the Celtics. I remember this. I was witness to this. I remember when you guys were nothing.
I don't think I'd recognize my old Boston and Warwick friends today. Their streets are paved with gold, their clothes are made from the finest silken hair of virgin maidens. Perhaps their silence after tonight's game is a sign of what all good Americans are taught to say when they lose: Forget it; it didn't matter, anyway.
But I know it did matter. The Patriots lulled you people into believing in your team they way they did during the Perfect Season. And now they haven't won a playoff game since 2007. Belichick handled this loss the same way he handles them all, the way he handled his loss to the Giants in the Super Bowl. He simply made it clear that his team didn't execute or make the right plays. The thing about HAL 9000 is that the he lacked the human element of acknowledging weakness and error, so he had to kill all the human onboard the ship; Belichick's programming, which looks a great deal like narcissistic personality disorder, prohibits him from saying that his opponents outplayed him. Hal, Bill. Bill, Hal.
Yet the Jets did what the Giants did when they beat the Pats that fateful night. They pressured Brady into making very bad decisions. On at least three occasions, with either Calvin Pace or Shaun Ellis in his vicinity, Tom Brady actually flinched, even ducked, even when opponents were still a few steps away. He looked frail and confused. He blamed rookie Aaron Hernendez when he threw behind him. That's the Brady I've been waiting to see all year; the Brady I remember watching buckle under pressure before. The Patriots will continue to build, build, build teams that will keep me miserable for years, but they will never be The Team Of Destiny that they pretended to be for eight solid weeks this season. Brady's star is beginning the stages of fading over the horizen. Is that an overstatement? Yes, probably, but it is fun to say, isn't it?
And to all my dear friends in New England who are talking about injuries, excuses, the way Belichick did the year Brady got injured two seasons ago at Kansas City, let me suggest something I hope you'll find as unpleasant as it is meant to sound: your insistence upon remaining, in your own minds, the only team to beat, even when your team is staying home for the conference championship for the second year in a row, is making you sound like the very creature you were taught to despise from the moment you were brought into this ridiculous world. You sound like Yankee fans.
Now, let's look ahead.
There aren't many Steeler fans I know, but there are a few. They live like an uneasily welcome minority in Pennsylvania's more cosmopolitan city of Philadelphia. Sure, Philadelphians are a notoriously crude bunch. Santa Claus, Michael Irvan - Philthies don't really like anyone. Even in a 1969 biography of Vince Lombardi, documenting his only season coaching the Redskins, one sees an illustration of a Sonny Jurgenson effigy hanging from a Franklin Field rafter. "Philadelphians," the caption read, "doing their thing."
But ironically, Philly people view folks from Pittsburgh as mildly civilized Hill People, while Pittsburgh fans in this city seem to brood out of a gloomy sense of their own tragic superiority to their adopted city. Philly is American history's cradle; Pittsburgh was America's blacksmith - until it wasn't anymore after the mills closed. They lost their place their in American history, yet they are made of harder stuff than the Philadelphia snarl. We settled the west, their looks seem to say. We dealt in iron and coke; we built the nation, we provided the material to free the world from Fascism, and then they took it all away. In exchange for our jobs, a sympathetic God made us football champions, time and again. You walk around in period dress. You have Andy Reid. Who the hell are you?
Here are four Steeler fans I know. One is an author and scholar from Western PA who now a college professor in Michigan. He is that rare thing: an academic with an actual knowledge of a sport that produced only about two advanced minds that I can think of: Dr. Frank Ryan, Physicist and Browns championship quarterback and Alan Page, Purple People Eater and Minnesota Supreme Court Justice. He left me a one-line message today: "So, we meet again. Old friend." By "again," I know he's referencing the January 17, 2005 playoff game against the Steelers, when Doug Brien missed two field goals that would have sent us to the conference championship. Nice.
There's my cousin in Pittsburgh. I threw a few friendly salvos across the bow. When my brother reminded him that he was born in Wantaugh in Suffolk County and not Western Pennsylvania, my cousin informed my wife that she was married to a "soft" man and had a "wimpy" brother-in-law.
There was also a guy who used to live down the street from our old apartment who was a Steelers fan. He kept his Steelers banner outside all year. His car was covered with Steeler regalia. He even pasted Steeler stickers on his ground floor window, which is usually the sign of an unhinged mind, or a five year-old. He was the former. He kept a sign on the driveway gate between his building and his neighbors that read "Parking for Steeler Fans ONLY." The only thing is I think he meant it. Parking was shared between the homes, and he appeared to fight over it; or so it seemed when I would hear his neighbors complaining to police. The neighbor was gesturing to her marble front stoop, which had been covered, a la Jackson Pollack, with gobs of black and yellow paint.
Finally, there is a long-term substitute teacher who's been sharing our lunch period with us, and she's a Steeler fan, a farm girl from the west country of the Commonwealth. She's built like a rural, pretty, sturdy, hearty, optimistic gal, the kind who says, "Bless your heart" when you make her laugh. She is about as out of place in our snarky town as, well, a country girl. She is so very young but married, and her Christmas present to her mister was to stand in the freezing rain at Heinz Field and watch the Steelers beat the snot out of the Bengals. But just when you think you've put her into a convenient stereotype, you mention the Steelers' loss this season to the Jets a few weeks ago, and her eyes take on an unfamiliar darkness filled with solid dedication. "They didn't have Polamalu," she said. "They will next time."
I didn't know there would be a next time, but she apparently did. She's been giving me dirty looks all week. It's explains my cousin's uncharacterstic smack. She speaks almost as if to say that she knows the Steelers will win (so do I) but she also resents my team (or any team) coming to town to challenge the integrity of the deal the Universe made with these proud people, and the world that was taken from them. We all root for our beloved teams for our own reasons, to serve our own demons.