Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Go Cubs Go

In a few hours, pitchers and catchers will report to HoHoKam Park in Phoenix, AZ, and eight beautiful months of Cubs baseball will begin for another year.

My love of the Cubs is a recent life phenomenon. I jumped part-way onto the bandwagon late in the 2003 season, when part of me could still enjoy sitting in Lucille’s on Lincoln Ave with Jeff and Katie, watching the improbably epic playoff meltdown metaphored succinctly by all as “Bartman.” Walking up Lincoln, then Broadway, across Agatite and up to our third-floor apartment in Uptown, Katie and I agreed: those fans seemed so entitled, so ugly in their desperate screaming at the television! Little did I know. Over the course of the winter, I read up on the Cubs' history of futility and almost-there, Ron Santo and his amputations following a lifetime of hometown heroics. How could I not cheer for a team whose patron saint, forty years ago, would jump and click his heels after every home-game win? The next spring, I followed the team from spring training, although insecurities about my new team, and my following baseball so closely, abound as I thought about moving to Miami and entering an MFA program. Would real poets take me seriously if they knew of my enthusiasm for the Cubs?

That May, my wedding present from Katie was an authentic size-8 100% wool fitted Cubs home cap (red knob and all). True to form, she explained that she chose the gift because she figured it was about time I went public with my Cubs love, poets be damned. I wore that hat with great pride more or less daily for the next two years, until Katie (supposedly) accidentally left a bag full of rotten mangos on top of it. By that point, the charm of seeing her husband becoming so enthusiastic about something so essentially silly had transformed into weariness, if not outright frustration. Pat Hughes and Ron Santo tuned in on the laptop for weeks on end. Collapses improbable to anyone except the objective observer. Skipping nights out because hey, the Cards are in town! Still, our last Christmas together, she bought me a new Cubs hat, and I continued to wear it, across Romania, with something approaching American ugliness. I had it on the evening that Katie was killed.

To participate in American popular culture, and not make your peace with spontaneous bear imagery, often violent, is to run the risk of losing your mind every twenty seconds or so. Consider. Homer Simpson’s bear attack in the Simpsons TV show, then the inexplicable and plot-pointless Alaskan bear attack in the Simpsons movie. Will Ferrell’s bear wrestling, which turns into an attack, in the upcoming Semi-Pro. SNL’s bear-shark skit. The Kung-Fun Panda. Emile Hirsch and Sean Penn’s myth-laden bear showdown in Into The Wild. The bear market. Sufjan Stevens’ “Sleeping Bear.” The Chicago Bears. The Cub Scouts (as Chase works toward the rank of “Bear”). Weeds, one of Katie’s favorites, with its first-season mantra, “You Can’t Miss The Bear.” 139,000 bear-image movies on YouTube.

Most of the jokes that I really enjoy walk a fine line between clever and insensitive. I understand the part of the creative/marketing brain that says, wow, bear attacks, that’s so crazy and improbable, even absurdly unlikely. Who’s that going to offend? The aspect I have less appreciation for, though, is bear-as-fascination-with-the-overwhelming, which says that a bear is big, scary, and completely indifferent to your well-being, and to stand in its presence is to understand the futility of humanity and the awesome power of nature blah blah blah. It says something about how well-insulated and comfortably numb our society is that so many recreationally venture into dangerous situations just to revive their sense of mortality.

Three weeks ago, I wrote Dara Brown of MSNBC, then the Associated Press, essentially the same letter detailing seven errors they made in their reporting of Katie’s death. Most offensive to me was the suggestion—run over video footage of Katie’s covered body, then a random bear photo—that earlier in the day, (a 31-year-old) Katie had provoked that same bear while taking photos of it, and that the bear had returned to exact its revenge late at night. A close second was the footage of me explaining the attack to a police officer within an hour of Katie’s death, as part of a “police report”, which was apparently also sold to MSNBC and excerpted on its web reporting, Good Morning America, and several other news outlets that picked up the feed. The need to create some sort of absurd narrative clearly trumped any straight reporting of the facts, or maybe Brown is just that poor a reporter. I’m guessing she compiled the story alongside her daily celebrity reporting, Britney Spears in a hospital, that guy from Lost in rehab, etc.

Katie and I took the DVD set of seasons 1 and 2 of Lost to Romania, and watched them compulsively our first month there. When season 3 became available on iTunes, I’d download it Thursday mornings before heading off to teach, and we’d watch it over that weekend. TV on DVD, as I’ve said in earlier posts, was a big part of entertaining, and maybe insulating a little, ourselves in Bucharest. The routine went more or less like this: Katie works late, I cook dinner, maybe Sara comes over, we eat chicken skewers, roasted veggies, stuffed mushrooms and fresh bread, drink some wine, bake cookies, then settle in to watch 2 or 3 episodes. I knew how good the show was based on when Katie would fall asleep. Sure sleepers were old episodes of West Wing and boring meta-episodes of Lost. Non-sleepers, always, were Weeds and House.

If I’ve made my peace with seeing the Cubs through more heartbreak, I’m still not sure what to make of how closely associated some good times with Katie are with Massive Attack’s “Teardrop,” Jack and Kate, Lacy LaPlante and MILF Weed, and that triumphant horn chorus in The West Wing just before the credits. Even stranger, for me, is how such moments completely fry my emotional circuitry, while the random bear imagery just sort of bugs me until it passes. For all of the experiences we had during our life together, the ones I can most easily engage, can get my mind around, the ones I would most like to have back on a daily basis, are those unremarkable long evenings we'd pack it in and hang around the apartment in Chicago, Miami, and Bucharest, and watch spectacular things happen to not-real people.

My favorite Post Secret post, from last July, is a post card that says, “Every time I cry—regardless of the reason in the beginning I always end up crying because of her death.” Maybe grief rewires the brain a little, brings a wider range of emotions closer to the surface, wears down your emotional immunity. Or, maybe you just learn to accept the programming that was there from the beginning. Either way, the next time we’re together, if I head off to tune in WGN or to update myself on the true location of The Others, please don’t take it personally.


Stephanie said...

I find myself always fast forwarding through Stephen Colbert's "threatdown" as well - because of the inevitable bear joke.

Kelly, from FIU said...

I just watched the first season of Weeds last week and had to fast forward through the bear parts as well. I didn't know that Katie liked that show - that will make it even more fun to watch (and it's already soooo funny).

I saw that same Postsecret card, and it made me think of her, too.

Marcus said...


What a rich post--there is so much to respond to here.

You jogged my memory of an amazing tap dancing performance I saw in front of Wrigley Field one time; it was a FUP trip, I believe, so hopefully you were there. Close to a statue, steps from the park, a wizened old man danced his heart out. Us college kids gathered around to bask in the coolness. The sun was shining brilliantly, the people were happy, and two minutes later I was inside the Friendly Confines and ready for some baseball.

It was always fun to watch the El roll during the games, as city life surged on all around us. Those were the days, my friend.

Ben said...

Thanks for the post, John. Yeah, all the TV references were lost on me, but I loved the rest of it. You must have had a blast tracking down all these links.

May we all be mindful of "those unremarkable long evenings we pack it in and hang around the apartment." Even when the excuse to do so was to talk about a book that only you and I had read...

Baby Tee said...

One of my favorite posts.

Anonymous said...

A couple of thoughts here I wanted to add... first, and I'm still having a hard time with the humor here... when we started looking for sympathy cards last June, the very first card Sam picked up and opened said, "The pain must be hard to bear." He put it down immediately as we looked for another card.

On a completely different note, I'm glad you've written a letter to the reporter. Although I haven't heard all the details of the evening, I also found myself getting more and more mad when I read the various stories that seemed to hint that Katie somehow "provoked" the attack by the flash in her camera. Thank you, John.


JT said...

Hi John. Long time fan, first time commenter.

I've thought about the bear-as-lazy-metaphor phenomenon more than once since Katie's death. It's a shorthand that leaves me as frustrated and weary as the continued Republican contempt for France.

Bhalo theko.

Kayla said...

I realized all of the mistakes within like 3 days of her death. They were all so stupid.
Then recently, I found out something terrible. Have you heard of the Jensen trial? About the couple in Pleasant Prairie and the guy poisened his wife with AnitFreeze? Well, I just found out that their son is in my class. And his father was found guilty on Thursday during school. Imagine how terrible that would be. Then I saw it on the internet and on 20/20 the show. And I thought, I wonder how many facts are true.

Freaky huh?