Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Fourth And Long

While promoting American Fan on sports radio shows (refuge for angry, confused middle-age white guys), several hosts accused me of elitism, insisting that I despised our national pastimes, and hence our nation. Not so, I'd counter. If they had read the book, which clearly many had not, they would see that I was raised in a sports-mad environment, played baseball and football as a kid, and got to meet various pro athletes, mostly big men from the ABA. I was as American as random violence, and understood fan behavior intimately.

As I aged and became politicized, sports fan culture bemused then sickened me. Appreciation for physical strength and athletic grace was often a flimsy cover for cheap tribalism, masochistic voyeurism, displaced aggression, insecurity and emptiness. In a land where politics are bought and fixed, sports offer distraction and escape, a false sense of power and belonging. It remains a useful and highly effective control mechanism, and dovetails nicely with militarism and imperialism, as we'll see when fighter jets zoom over a star-spangled Miami in two weeks.

All this and more is evident. Yet there I was on Sunday, clad in a distressed 1963 New York Jets t-shirt, jumping up and down and screaming as Mark Sanchez hit Braylon Edwards for an 80-yard score against the heavily-favored Indy Colts.

"YES, MOTHERFUCKERS! YES! AH HA HA HA HA!!" I shouted, kicking and punching the air, sending the cats fleeing to the basement.

Oh, how slender our dreams; how fragile our hopes. Before long, Peyton Manning, who is now officially in every other commercial, took apart the Jets' defense, while New York's offense stalled, not helped by a rib injury to Shonn Greene, their best back, who didn't return. I sat with my son deflated as the Jets sank into blue and white quicksand. No Namath miracle against these Colts.

The young man observed that his father behaved oddly, even by Perrin standards. He was right. My son has seen me in numerous states of mind and levels of physicality, some crazier than others, though none ever truly threatening. In nearly 14 years, he's seen the playbook and more, but rarely has he witnessed serious sports passion where guttural pantomime and tone-deaf shrieks reveal a malformed personality from my youth. He got a full glimpse of this on Sunday before the elder Perrin returned, unhappy but resigned, lazily citing whatever Sun Tzu epigram might apply.

He found the old man's outburst entertaining. "Nice Dad," he smiled, wearing my 1960 New York Titans t-shirt in retro-solidarity. "Where did all that come from?"

Where? From a wellspring of pain, fear and hurt. From an early desire to belong. From a need to survive the emotional and physical beatings I'd endured at home and at school. To complete that Hail Mary TD pass or buzzer-beating mid-court jumper in my heart and mind. For me, sports was survival. If I couldn't play them as well as the jocks, then I'd appreciate them at a deeper, philosophical level. Failing that, I'd use sports as release, though the handle's well-worn and cracked, and turning it takes more pressure than before. My stiff aching hands can still do this, but it requires a bit more patience to let the demons out.

"I'm an old AFL geek, son," I said instead. "I watched the Jets win Super Bowl III on a black and white TV in my uncle's basement. They've been my team ever since."

"You like those old rebel leagues, don't you?"

"Yep. Even though the AFL was founded by reactionary businessmen, to me it represented freedom. Weird how the mind works, huh?"

My son laughed. "Well, your mind, Dad."

Just when I'm convinced that death is nothingness, that existence is a butterfly's dream of flowing infinite molecules, a dead friend or relative appears to me just before waking, vivid, alive, slightly distant. The other morning my late pal Russ popped in, wearing his black leather jacket, pompadour glowing, wide Irish face with his trademark smirk. Russ and I had a serious falling out in life, which I've written about, but here was nothing but warmth. He said he no longer felt anger towards me, that where he was anger didn't matter. I asked him what death felt like.

"You wouldn't understand," Russ dryly replied, "but here's a taste."

He then vanished, leaving me standing barefoot in gray-black grass. I felt carefree, light as a leaf, the sensation on my feet unusual but not frightening. I had physical form, yet felt transparent as a woman in a fluttering white dress near a greenish lake waved to me. I wanted to get closer but couldn't, my body breaking apart, scattered by a breeze into bright particles.

Hey, there are worse ways to go.