Image courtesy of Thatsenuf.com.
Image courtesy of Thatsenuf.com.
There are intimations of the abyss: wars and rumors of war, our television and our politics, the expression that's always on Donald Trump's face, the lack of expression that's always on Calista Gingrich's face. There is, honestly, just Donald Trump in general and Calista Gingrich in general. There is a mad, ravenous vanity loose in our land and everywhere a thundering babyish will not to know, and we have the vicious and vastly small culture to prove it. Which is to say that these can seem to be bleak times, at least if you do something like idly read the news while watching a football game on television.
And man, the things you will see during the parts of that football game that are not the actual football game. You will see the affluent charge chortling from their fashionable homes to surprise one another with luxury sedans and SUV-crossovers whose bow-wrapped presence in the driveway was announced through elaborate technological pranks. You will see so many shit-scared bros, shamed and re-shamed by their smirking buds for ordering, in the way that a total gaylord might, the wrong vintage of oat-fart lite beer. You will see a great deal of bafflingly treacly commercials for jewelry—jewelry that looks like something a proctologist would pull from an Ed Hardy t-shirt's crevasse, jewelry that was "inspired" by chocolate, jewelry exclusively designed by Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. There's the one in which a suburban mom shit-talks Santa Claus himself, and there's the one in which a Redskins linebacker is weirdly mean to a caveman for no apparent reason. Every now and then Papa John shows up and delivers an earnest to-camera disquisition on the moral import of "real meats," and comes off like a naugahyde-coated Congressman who has been victimized by a teleprompter prank in which "pepperoni" has been swapped in for "flat tax." It's a bummer.
Or more than that, if you're in the wrong mood. If you're in the wrong mood all that brand-sensitive pleading and yelling and shaming and misprioritized sentimentalizing sounds like the noise made by people who have lost themselves utterly, who went crazy with desperation while clinging to sinking flotsam very far from shore and are now scream-singing themselves to sleep. It is all so inauthentic and un-human, all so profoundly an advertisement against itself and an argument against the distant and decadent status quo it reflects. Or it seems that way, you know, if you're in the wrong mood. But the good news, which is very good news, is that commercial breaks end.
This is not great news if they end only so that the second act of an episode of Two and A Half Men can start; Ash-Kutch grinning through the canned laughter that chases away every single-entendre dick joke is crudely eloquent proof of all those vague, everything-is-terrible inklings. But when those commercials give way to a game, the contrast that results can be a welcome and valuable reminder of something very valuable and worth remembering and very easy to forget. For all that's false and coarse about the holiday season as it's currently sold—the thick coat of state-of-the-art marketing gloss on an incandescently toxic materialism; the terrible smallness of the bile-bags trying frantically to win Purple Hearts in the war on Christmas and the heartrendingly phony bigness of your more grandiose mass-produced Christmas sentimentality—sports can offer not just an escape into abstraction and aesthetics, but something of a corrective. The fleeting grace of a play run properly and with some joy of performance can serve as an example of some authentic and undeniable and periodically transcendent human things. And so it is a relief that, over the deafening, fear-screech of our discourse, the desperate nastiness of our consumerism, the stalled-out cynicism of our politics, the manifold other denials and elisions and general sad, enervated stasis, a screaming now comes across the sky, and that the screaming is coming from DeAndre Jordan and that it is happening while he is somehow dunking on Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol at the same time.
This is sort of a long way to get to "you can't fake the funk on a nasty dunk," I know. And asking the first week of a lockout-shortened NBA season or the last limping weeks of the NFL regular season to provide transcendental rescue or a reminder of the possibility of beauty or otherwise serve to map the further shores of human awesomeness is asking a lot, of course. But the brief, prosaic virtuosity of a well-run play—or the hardscrabble homeliness of one played poorly and honestly, or the little glow you get after hitting a jumper while shooting around at the playground by yourself—seems to me a pretty bracing counterargument to the overbearing, overwhelming inauthenticity of the season as it is sold. Instead of something large, expensive and overwrought, something small, simple and made by human hands.
It is a very good thing, for all of us, that the gift-giving holidays are better and more idiosyncratic than the flattened, half-mean thing that mass culture shows us. But it's not necessarily a surprising thing, since we all already know that we are not, individually and together in our communities of choice, anywhere near as small or as cruel as our ulcerous, terrified mass culture suggests. Everywhere, by means of crass example, we are shown extravagant, decadent consumption, but most of us just do our best to get gifts for loved ones that we hope they'll like, and feel some human-scale pride and joy at making someone else happy. Where commercials give us a vision of human relationships that is essentially the Stanford Prison Experiment only with more gay-baiting and trucks, the time we spend away from work and with people we care about can remind us of how wildly, nastily wrong that nut-punch Hobbesianism is, and that being with people we care about is in instead something that makes us greater and happier and more ourselves. For the queasy instrumentalism, flat stupidity and unremitting cynicism of our political discourse, we can substitute actual conversation with other humans.
And then, on Christmas Day, we'll have the NBA again, to show us how dazzling it can be to watch humans cooperate and create in real time, intimating not the depth of that nearby abyss but the possibility of flight. There's a better-than-average chance this looming NBA season will be something of a shitshow, and it's a virtual certainty given who owns these teams that much of it will be shot through with the same blinkered, plutocrat-powered ill will that brought us the lockout. And, yes, it's just basketball. But for now and right now, it does not feel like a small thing that, soon, the ball will be rolled out, and that the genius-unto-grace of the best players in the world will be loosed to do whatever it will do. Which is what it always does for us, and which is the same thing that the holidays and their attendant food and drink and friends and family and time out of the office can do for us, which is to remind us of some things about beauty and joy and give us a little bit of humble agape. I'll take watching, talking about and glorying in all that goofy, disposable, indispensable beauty over a gift-wrapped luxury sedan in the driveway, and I'll take it with pleasure.