Couches Versus Cancer

The NCAA Tournament is great and awful in various ways. But for people in need of the escape that sports can bring, March Madness delivers.
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The first screen was a gimme. Our TV is totally decent, a five-year-old plasma already conveniently plugged into the cable box. The center bingo square, it served as primary viewing for whatever game looked the most promising at the time, and monopolized most of the audio.

Screen two was a gift. As a parent, there is only so much you can do when your adult children are facing major events in their lives. Sometimes all you can do is express your love and support, and in some cases you might do that with major appliances. This may or may not have previously taken the form of a washing machine, it’s not important, really. In this case, it manifested as a TV. Ostensibly, it was intended for our bedroom, but for now it is on our left/stage right, connected to an antenna picking up the local digital broadcast. This means that its primary job was being locked on CBS, at least for the period in question, which was the first few days of the NCAA Tournament.

Televisions three and four took a little more doing. These, a matching pair of twenty-someodd-inch LCDs set to the right on a matching pair of filing cabinets, were loaned to us. They were orphaned, the remainders of a complicated story that I’m not sure anyone is entirely clear on. Allegedly they are now in my apartment, which is fortunate, because they were perfect for this.

Screen three has a lamprey dongle sticking askew from an HDMI port. Our tablet, which I later discovered to be The Official Tablet Of The NCAA—imagine my joy at being in compliance—can wirelessly stream games on the tournament’s mobile app. It can then sling that picture to the dongle, cloning the tablet to the television. That is a ridiculous thing to type, but we’re left making-up goofy words because this stuff is basically magic. Ten years ago that’s a line of dialogue on the Star Trek that was on UPN. Now I can ask the War Games computer in my pocket what the score is. Magic versus Bird was literally my lifetime ago.

Screen four has a fifty-foot HDMI cable tailing out of it, because sometimes the easiest answer to a question is, “Yeah, it turns out I can just buy a fifty-foot cable.” That cable ends at the same desktop computer from which I am typing these words. Games can be streamed right in a browser from the tournament’s web page and extended to the TV as another display, if only after the expletive-inducing process of squinting to see if the mouse, across the room, is in the right place to click to make the video full-screen.

It goes without saying that it is opulent and at least a little gross to set up a wall of televisions to witness the NCCA’s yearly monument to hypocritical, lucrative, emotionally in-the-red excess. We both felt that, at various times, and acknowledged it to each other. But we did it, because sometimes it’s fun to watch an overflowing weekend of sports with friends, and because it was an interesting problem to solve, and because despite it all, parts of the branded spectacle known as March Madness—I am not even sure I can call it that without express written consent—are great. Mostly, though, we did it because of cancer.

I don’t get overly excited about it, but I like the NCAA Tournament. I’m not much for college sports, but in the line of competitions like the FA Cup, or say any of the U.S. Open flavors, the tournament posits an opportunity for the implausible, and occasionally for the impossible. It’s a lottery ticket where the jackpot is an awestruck Jim Valvano running around frantically searching for someone to hug.  At the very least it posits the opportunity for a shitload of basketball spanning four days more or less from lunchtime to bedtime, which affords plenty of room for a scrappy underdog team to eventually get stomped by some semi-famous people on a big stage. Despite the fact that the NCAA as an institution would be best served by being doused in gasoline and burned while we circle around it cheering, I enjoy this at least a little bit every Spring. Cringing at Bracketological pseudoscience and woefully anticipating “One Shining Moment” with a sour taste in my mouth have yet to completely squash that.

My spouse, however, is a fanatic. It’s not really that she has a zealous love of any one team, or even college basketball in general. Though she’s an Ohio State fan who watches regularly, she loves the tournament. Specifically and deeply, she loves the first four days of the tournament. Over the years this has transformed into a holiday, and one of the important ones, for her and a partially shifting cast of friends.

They would take off that Thursday and Friday months in advance. They would wait, parked too-early in the lot of a Buffalo Wild Wings to pounce on a table the moment the front door opened. Sometimes the staff would unlock the doors early because the assembled looked so pathetic, all half-asleep and antsy in their cars. And then they would hold that table all day Thursday, and then generally repeat the process on Friday; if things broke right, this would extend even into Saturday before the lack of sleep, sensory overload, onion ring batter, and the side effects of their blood slowly turning into ranch dressing-inflected embalming fluid would eventually overtake them.

They would run brackets and squares and take ludicrous prop bets. I once showed up to drop in for an hour to say hello and found her running a pool with a coworker of mine whom she barely knew, in which the participants were betting on what the next commercial was going to be. The ritual has diminished in extravagance, volume and bad choices as we’ve gotten older, as of course it would. But for the most part the tradition has endured in some form.

And so it continues, even though this year’s tournament fell inconveniently during the middle of chemotherapy. In November, she found a lump; bad news over the holidays segued into terror and terror segued into doctor’s appointments, and head shaving, and a great deal of plain white rice. She’s pretty tired and semi-nauseated a lot of the time, and it quickly became apparent that bar bathrooms during the peak of the frenzy are really a better bet for people with a robust white cell count.

But because she loves this, and I love her, we started planning. On some level, it was about the tournament, but it was also about staking a claim, during this wartime, on something like normalcy. At some point she started referring to it as Couches for Cancer.

I remember almost none of the basketball, if I’m being honest.

I’m pretty solid on the second half of Michigan State vs Virginia, but that’s about it. I spent a few years at MSU and my family are rabid fans, and watching them play over their heads and hold off the Cavaliers, then slowly realizing that a difficult but potentially surmountable path has fallen in place in front of them was a thrill. I know that Georgetown uses a fantastically large human being in heavy rotation—the game was on mute, so I only later learned that his name is Joshua Smith and he’s listed at 6’10”, 350 lbs. I’m confident that the goaltending call on Yanick Moreira and SMU was a whole wagon of bullshit. I maintain that nothing screams joy like Georgia State’s Ron Hunter, throwing up his hands to cheer for his son/player, R.J. Hunter, and falling off the rolling stool to which he had been confined because he had previously injured himself celebrating. This much I remember.

I have vague repeating impressions of Charles Barkley finding himself in a strange landscape he doesn’t fully understand, and deciding that the best way to respond to that is just to go with what’s always worked and say some shit. I am now intimately familiar with the dryness levels of Stephen Curry’s left armpit. Samuel Jackson, Spike Lee, and animals with hats on are interested in selling me in some products, I think. Jennifer Garner understands my mostly notional frustration with credit cards that offer frequent flyer miles.

After about fifteen minutes it all just melted into logos brought to me by other logos, broken up by a blur of determined-looking kids dribbling. What I do remember is that my de-facto brother-in-law (I know) made ten pounds of a silly-good Korean barbeque recipe, including slaw and his own pickles. A bunch of our friends and family, some whom we haven’t been able to see much lately, came by because they felt like it was important. At one point there was a cute baby, not so much standing up but gripping the edge of the couch and actively not falling down, which is in point of fact also sports. Someone brought some unholy puffs of sparkling green dough masquerading as cookies, and I fucking ate all of them. Sometimes I would look over and my spouse would be smiling. The rest of it didn’t really seem to matter all that much.

It wasn’t normal. Of course it wasn’t. It couldn’t be. She was sick, weary, and saddled with considerably worse anxiety than usual. It was harder than we thought. But she got through it, even enjoyed most of it, and that was something. When I walked in after work on Friday, there were handwritten betting slips strewn on my desk. It was a distraction from the worst things things we face in life, the thing we worry about when we’re not watching college kids jump three feet into the air catch alley-oops. It was an experience to share with the people we care about. It was more than enough.

I’m not the least bit disappointed that the pinnacle of my tournament wasn’t watching Kentucky execute with extravagant precision, or gawking at Frank Kaminsky moving his feet with the dancerly ease of a man half his size. My March Madness, at least so far, peaked sometime during the second half of Dayton’s upset over Providence.

Most everyone had left or gone to bed for the night, and I was laying on the floor, intoxicated and stuffing a slice of caramel-iced cake into my face. On my left, a silent David Letterman moved his lips and gesticulated. Front and center, Dayton/Providence cut to Salt-N-Pepa sort-of-performing “Push It” as part of a Geico commercial. The tablet had already been pillaged, so the third screen sat blank; on the far right, the options for alternate games had finally been exhausted and given way to rotating, oversized pictures of Calvin and Hobbes and Monsters, Inc., courtesy of my desktop.

Something, and I’m going to credit Spinderella and the cowbell fill from “Push It,” broke through the haze and I was suddenly struck with how wacky the whole scene was, and how great it was. I understood that it was okay to stop being scared for a few minutes and enjoy this, the incredible things we still have and the priceless opportunity we have to share them with people we care about.

We are just watching sports, as flawed in as many ways as they’ve ever been. They’re not going to cure cancer, or cure anything, but they can—with the right perspective and with the right people—make dealing with all of it a little more bearable. At the very least, they gave us a reason to forget for a few days, hook up four TVs, get drunk, and eat cake on the floor. That will not fix anything that is broken. That is, also, enough.

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