It happened so slowly that I didn’t realize that I had altered my previously fixed universe until I suddenly discerned that I hadn’t seen a live game – baseball, basketball, or hockey – in over a month. For someone who had always lived for the immediacy of competitive sports, I was jarred when I was informed that a certain horse, one I had never seen race – the disconcertingly misspelled American Pharoah – had won the first Triple Crown in 38 years. I had heard that a horse was vying for the elusive title at the Belmont, but I never bothered to tune in.
Whether it had been Secretariat; Bobby Orr; Jim Brown; Pele; Willie Mays; Muhammad Ali; Bill Russell; Billie Jean King; Sandy Koufax; Wayne Gretzky; Michael Jordan, or, yes, Tom Brady – that dazzling world which had provided me with a seedbed of inspiration over a lifetime now seemed to matter very little to me. From the moment that the most recent Super Bowl had ended to the throws of summer, I somehow turned the page of an enduring passion that had plunged into the abyss. It was as if the lights to a night game at Fenway had been unexpectedly turned off for in the middle of a close ballgame.
This past week, I sat at my teacher’s desk and speculated whether I had developed some sort of malignant character flaw. After all, my longstanding Red Sox buddy, William, a profoundly cultured, deeply spiritual man who is well-versed in everything from Bob Dylan to impressionism, continued to spew forth a series of sagacious perspectives on the Red Sox via Facebook. My hockey-obsessed pal, Matty, a fellow educator and Bostonian, had pointedly stopped me in the hallway at school a week previously, bellowing, “Kell, did you see last night’s Blackhawks’ overtime win? It was as good as it gets!” And earlier that day, a high school mate, Bob, who once shared Celtics season tickets with me, emailed about the brilliance of LeBron James and how maybe, maybe he might be even better than Larry. I couldn’t really provide a rejoinder to any of them as I had not witnessed what had captured their unending obsessions.
It doesn’t mean that I didn’t try “going back” to my previously secure and luminous sports haven. As unwatched game after unwatched game began to accumulate like a stack of mail on my doorstep, I forced myself to read two of my favorite current sportswriters, Chad Finn and Joe Posnanski, in the hope that they might steer me back to the commonality and passion of sports. Sure, I kept my MLB subscription, but after the Sox opening game in early April, I have never viewed another complete game on TV or via Gamecast since.
Of course, given the fact that my beloved New England Patriots had just won their fourth Super Bowl, it was a rather odd time to pull away from the passion of competitive sports, especially after the most successful sports franchise in the 21st century won Super Bowl XLIX. After all, I had followed the Pats through hell or high water for 50 years and had even seen them play at Fenway Park on at least 20 occasions back in the mid-1960s.
And so, it was not at all surprising that I faithfully watched each and every play of the Pats’ 2014 championship season, which ended with perhaps the most astonishing conclusion in Super Bowl history. (Yes, I well remember watching the first one – Lombardi’s Packers versus Stram’s Chiefs when I was nearly twelve). But in all honesty, I didn’t watch any of the pregame Super Bowl coverage this past February. During the game’s copious commercial breaks, I usually veered back to reading; I even missed a few plays because I was entrenched in a historical novel at the time. A Billie Holiday box set from Decca Records served as the audio backdrop throughout the entire contest. I guess I wanted to hear something immortal that would block out the cluttered, play-by-play banter that remained muted.
So what have I been doing instead of following professional and collegiate sports? Four things: reading; watching various TV series; listening to music, and writing. In the end, I have taken a step back from the timely and have plunged, head first, into the timeless.
Maybe Frost is right: nothing gold can stay, but I somewhat disagree with the great man. It’s patently true – the most beautiful things in life often have a half-life that is breathtakingly short. One only needs to have lived in New England for 60 years to realize that. The exhilarating brilliance of spring will eventually morph into the tomblike silence of winter. The temporary glories of sports serve as capstones to the notion that we’ve all experienced something astounding that fades away at a blink of an eye. That kind of achievement, while wondrous, can’t last. Life simply doesn’t work like that.
Thankfully, art seems to be exempt from all of this. You’d think that Robert Frost would have recognized this, but maybe he never considered what he was writing would actually outlive him to the summit of immortality. Even though he died more than a half-century ago, Frost and his understated “Mending Wall” still astonishes me each and every time I read it. I still weep whenever Scout walks home with Boo Radley at the end of To Kill A Mockingbird. I inevitably sit back in wonder each year when I work my way through the last two pages of Gatsby with my classes (“Kids, this is a literary symphony framed by perfect notes.”) I constantly feel a crushing sense of dread every time I peruse through Sylvia Plath’s last poem, “Edge.” I feel goosebumps forming on my arms each time I watch Sally Draper glance at her father, Don Draper; outside the whorehouse where he grew up, realize that everything she thought was true is now a lie. I recurrently marvel at the eternal artistry of Louis Armstrong in “West End Blues;” Charlie Parker in “Bird Gets the Worm;” Ella Fitzgerald in The Cole Porter Songbook; Frank Sinatra in Only the Lonely; the last 23 minutes of Abbey Road; Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks; Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks; Joni Mitchell’s Blue, or Eva Cassidy’s perfect-pitch recording of “Fields of Gold.” And then there are the painters – especially my beloved Vincent – and a multitude of others.
Maybe this is all a subconscious reaction to another disappointing Red Sox season, but I doubt it. Perhaps as I am tiptoeing towards my own inescapable demise, I now realize that in a world where junk, spam, and filler dominate our lives like a bottomless refuse dump, I want to go out and keep mining for whatever gold is left.
After all, great art never loses its luster or fades away.