Archive for January 2011
Da’ Bears have been all the buzz in Chicago this week as they have prepared to face Green Bay for a chance to play in the Super Bowl. Bears flags have been snapping in the Arctic air, and navy and orange have been haute couture everywhere you go. The fervor has me thinking about my status as a Bears fan. I feel devout, though some of my closest friends would take issue with how I express myself. That’s because I own a Cade McNown jersey, and more often than not I wear it on game day. It’s not something many Bears fans would admit, or even write about in their blogs, but I do. I own a Cade McNown jersey.
Most Bears fans will roll their eyes at the mention of the mostly forgotten McNown, the Bears #1 draft pick out of UCLA in 1999. Instead, they prefer to focus their ire on Rex Grossman, the Bears quarterback who foundered in Super Bowl XLI and the season subsequent to it. Grossman’s ineptitude in the title game four years ago is the stuff of legends. He completed 20 of 28 passes for 154 yards, threw two interceptions, fumbled twice, and got sacked once. His performance rivaled those of Vince Ferragamo and Steve Grogan in their respective Super Bowls. His numbers with the Bears over six seasons were ugly. He completed 53% of his passes, had a touchdown-to-interception ration of 33:35, got sacked 58 times, had an average Quarterback Rating of 70.2, compiled an overall record of 19-12, and spent most of his first three seasons on injured reserve. But if Grossman’s numbers were ugly, then McNown’s numbers were hideous. He completed 54% of his passes, had a 16:19 touchdown-to-interception ratio, ate turf 45 times, had an anemic QB Rating of 67.7, and was a staggering 3-12 as a starter. Furthermore, McNown got himself banned from the Playboy Mansion, was implicated in a handicapped parking scandal at UCLA, and couldn’t pay the fee at a toll booth driving out of Chicago one time. A friend of mine once had seats behind the Bears bench, which afforded him a great view of the hissy fit McNown threw when he couldn’t find his helmet during the game.
So how in the name of “Papa Bear” Halas could Bears fans forget all that? It was only ten years ago! More importantly, why in the hell do I not only own, but wear, a Cade McNown jersey?
It started in late summer of 2001. I was tailgating with my buddies Scott and Adam before a preseason game. Just days before, McNown had been released after two pathetic seasons. As such, we were commiserating the sorry state of Bears quarterbacks. Never one to pass up the chance venture an absurd proposal, I vowed that if we found a Cade McNown jersey for $10, I’d buy it and wear it at the game. Soon enough, we walked past a souvenir stand and there is was, like a turd in a punchbowl: A white #8 Bears jersey with “McNown” printed across the back. The price tag read “$10.” I asked the saleman if that meant he was going to pay me $10 for taking it off his hands. He chuckled, took my sawbuck, and I slipped my new jersey on over my t-shirt. It was but the first of dozens of times I would wear it.
Since that fateful night a decade ago, I’ve come to love my McNown jersey. The price was definitely right, it’s proven rather durable after numerous washings and wearings, and adds an ironic seasoning to my allegiance. Since I bought it, the Bears have compiled an 87-73 record, made the playoffs four times, and played in the Super Bowl. Plus, it’s usually good for a laugh or an off-handed comment when I wear it in public. I once wore it to a Milwaukee Brewers game for the sole purpose of aggravating Cheeseheads. It worked.
But it has not all been gags and glory with my #8 rag. For a time, the jersey held a playoff curse. Such is the risk you assume when you twit the authority of the football gods. I was wearing the jersey five months after I bought it when the Bears, having unexpectedly wrapped up the NFC Central with a 13-3 record, fell to the Eagles 33-19 in the divisional playoffs. Scott, Adam, and I watched helplessly as it unfolded. I thought it was a coincidence. Four years later, the Bears faced the Panthers in the playoffs. I had a rowdy group over at my apartment feasting on jambalaya and fried catfish as we watched the game, and there were a few comments about me wearing the jersey. The Panthers ended up mauling the Bears 29-21.
I knew it wasn’t a coincidence. I could sense it from the way tiny hairs stood up on the back of my neck when Muhsin Muhammad dropped a pass late in the game. As soon as the debacle was over, I practically tore the jersey off and threw it in the snow on my balcony. It layed there in a haphazard slump for three weeks, until I was certain that any evil spirits had fled its frozen threads.
It worked. A year later, the Bears fought their way to the Super Bowl, and I wore #8 all the way through Seattle and New Orleans. But the Bears faced the Colts for the title, and as much as I like the boys from Halas Hall, I couldn’t deny my roots. I was born and raised in Indiana and was a Colts fan for fifteen years before I came to the Bears, so I was obliged to wear my blue and white hoodie and back Peyton Manning.
None of what happened during the Bears futile attempt in Super Bowl XLI, though, changes the fact that the curse of the McNown jersey has been broken. Since the exorcism, the Bears are 3-0 in the playoffs when I’ve wore it. I have full faith in its renewed powers and how it represents my fandom. I’ll be wearing it Sunday afternoon when the Bears face the Packers at Soldier Field. I hope we beat the hell out of ’em. It’s going to be World War III.
So yeah, I’m a Bears fan. I own a Cade McNown jersey.
I thought I put this topic to rest, but then I heard something on NPR last week that got me thinking. It was movie critic Bob Mondello’s Western primer–his 5 offerings of the best and most-accessible Western films of all time, designed to the spark interests of movie goers who don’t think they like the genre or whose appetites may have been whetted by the recent surge of True Grit at the box office (it has earned more than $125 million and substantial critical acclaim). You can listen to the segment here.
The films he selected were:
1. Shane (1953)
2. The Searchers (1956)
3. The Wild Bunch (1969)
4. Blazing Saddles (1974)
5. Unforgiven (1992)
I smiled when I heard him rank The Wild Bunch so high on his list. I’ve been an afficianado of the film for some time, but it seems I’m one of the only persons in my social circle who has heard of it, much less seen it. Mondello pointed to the opening line, claiming it was everything you need to now about the film: “If they move, kill ’em.” It’s perfect. Pretty much everything that moves in the film is killed.
I love that he slid Blazing Saddles in at #4–the most profane, insulting, hilarious film ever just happens to be a Western (or at least a mock-up of one).
The list is no doubt open to debate since there are some notable luminaries absent. I got to thinking about how I would add to the list while keeping in mind that the purpose is to offer different styles of the Western that would open up more interest in the genre to the casual film-goer. This is what I came up with:
1. Red River (1948) John Wayne has to be represented, and since Mondello already picked his greatest film (and greatest role), I can only settle for his second best. This one is a black-and-white cattle drive epic that might leave you in awe of how Howard Hawks captured the wide open landscapes of Texas and the southern plains. He uses shadows, dust, and rain to great effect to underscore the brutality of the drive and of Wayne’s character, Thomas Dunson. Dunson is a dark, driven bully who suffers a mutiny under the direction Montgomery Clift’s Matt Garth. The role laid the groundwork for Wayne to play the equally disturbing Ethan Edwards eight years later in The Searchers.
2. High Noon (1952) The ultimate marshal vs. the outlaws film. I’ve read it described as “minimalist,” which is apt given that it was shot in black and white, has an almost singular setting, and practically takes place in real time. The lead-up to Will Kane (Gary Cooper) facing down Frank Miller and his gang is as tense as any scene ever committed to celluloid, and the payoff doesn’t disappoint. Almost as tense is the steady ticking off of townspeople who turn their backs on the just-married marshal in his most dire moments– including his drunken, cowardly deputy Harvey Pell. The film plays heavily on moral ambiguity since Kane’s new bride is a Quaker, and he had already stepped down from his post as marshal just minutes before it is announced that Miller was released from jail and is headed to town. Some have ranked this as the greatest Western ever; the American Film Institute ranks it at #2 on its list of all-time greatest Westerns.
3. Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid (1969): The score may never be settled about which is better, this or The Wild Bunch. This one takes all the glory; the other has greater critical acclaim and a wider influence. You can’t go wrong with this genre-bending, anti-establishment Western. It’s a perfectly stylized story brought to life through Newman’s wise-cracking, know-it-all Cassidy and Redford’s cool but stoic Sundance Kid. Together they bumble around the west and eventually to Bolivia as a pair of bandits who are a lot luckier than they are good. In the end, the old axiom proves true: Luck always runs out.
4. The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) If John Wayne must be represented, so too must Clint Eastwood. This film could be called Dirty Harry on Horseback for the manner in which the titular character is both avenging and guardian angel as he tries to outrun his bloody past in the wake of the Civil War. It’s a tough call to take this one over The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, but it helps that this film is an Eastwood tour-de-force: He acted the lead role and directed. Eastwood also managed to transcend the source material, Forest Carter’s Gone to Texas. Chief Dan George steals the film as Wales’ tag-along Indian friend Lone Watie. This isn’t to deny the brilliance of TGTBTU; it’s just to say that Josey Wales is more accessible to people coming into the Western genre.
5. 3:10 to Yuma (2007) Russell Crowe is the charming badguy Ben Wade in James Mangold’s remake of the 1957 Glenn Ford Western. Dan Evans (Christian Bale) signs on to help escort Wade to Contention, AZ, where he will be put on a train to Yuma Territorial Prison. This film, too, is filled with moral amibiguity as it questions an individual’s duty to society, a father’s responsibility to his family, and the brutality of Pinkerton detectives (including a grizzled Peter Fonda). Wade may be the main badguy, but his right-hand man Charley Prince is ten times worse as he and the rest of the gang pursue Evans to free their boss.
Open Range (2003): I struggled mightily to find a place for this one. Kevin Costner finally emerges from the shadow of Dances With Wolves and gets the Western right by not disguising it as his own epic PC rendition of A Man Called Horse. This starts as another cattle drive film, but it quickly evolves into Costner and Robert Duvall cleaning up a corrupt town controlled by a greedy cattle baron. It helps that Costner is surprisingly effective as a violent, tortured soul who is again forced to kill in order to survive. The final shootout is brutal and realistic.
The Road Warrior (1981) and Outland (1981). Both science fiction films, these are excellent examples of how Western themes and plots have crossed over to other genres to considerable effect. The first film is a take on Shane with Mel Gibson’s “Mad” Max Rockatansky crashing through the post-apocalytpic Australian desert, trying to save a group of survivors holed up in an oil refinery before they are overrun by a gang of marauding psychopaths. The second film follows marshal William O’Niel (Sean Connery) as he tries to expose a corporate cover-up at a deep-space mining colony. The final half hour plays out as High Noon while O’Niel awaits the arrival of a pair of hitmen hired to quiet him.
The truly great rebounders are the guys who get in the thick of things and throw themselves around devil-may-care; guys who scratch, claw, and bite to tear the ball down. They are singular in purpose, and that focus is the seed of their reputations as fierce, relentless, and indispensible. When I think of these guys, I almost always think of Dennis Rodman. Even in his early days, before he went batshit crazy, Rodman was a board man of some renown. He was a key piece of the Detroit Pistons dynasty of the late 80s- early 90s before going on to even more glory with the Chicago Bulls. When he was with the Pistons, his nickname was “Worm.” How fitting for the guy who got dirty as he threw himself into the muck to fetch the ball for gunslingers like Isiah Thomas, Mark Aguirre, Vinny Johnson, and Joe Dumars.
It helps to have that rebounders mentality when you’re reworking a piece. You can’t be afraid to get in there and get knocked around. If it’s taking a physical toll on you, if you’re getting gouged eyes and sprained fingers and a bruised face, you’re probably doing it wrong. But there is a mental price to pay. You’ve got this story roiling in your mind, and you’re spending a lot of psychic energy to get it to work. If some writer friends get ahold of it, you might have to soothe your ego some (it helps to remember that You Are Not Your Writing). Furthermore, you might not have even finished the story yet– you might have the toughest part yet to write. It’s dirty, tedious work. But every writer worth his salt needs to be able to do it. Like with Rodman, there might be glory at the end. You can’t know that until you take yourself through it.
So I’ve been mucking around with this frame narrative since last week. I almost have a full draft, even though I’m on the fourth draft of the story. The clinching scene is still being shaped. I’m uneasy about it and have been approaching it at oblique angles, hoping that it would jump out of my pen while I’ve been distracted writing the framing pieces of the narrative and filling in some other structural elements and sweating over line edits. That hasn’t been working. I’ve got all that other stuff done now, and the clinching scene didn’t jump out of anywhere. So I have had to sit down with the sole intention of writing it. It’s only about half a page. But it’s an intense half. That’s why I’ve been avoiding it.
And this business of the frame narrative is hard! I have to have some sort of plausible reason for the narrator to be telling the other character’s story in the first place. It can’t just materialize out of thin air. That’s not how Heart of Darkness works, and if you want to succeed you want to think about using master works as a model for your own. So I had that problem to solve. I have at least a temporary solution.
There’s this business, too, of having different narrative voices in the story: The frame narrator and the narrator of the framed story (are you following this?). So I have to pay mind to how they speak. This is interesting to me, because the last two poems I have written had that same two-voice device. So it appears those poems were good practice for writing a frame narrative.
Finally, speaking of practice… this whole thing might end up being nothing more than practice. I don’t know what will become of the whole mess over the next few months. I’m not sure if The New Yorker or The Paris Review are quite ready for me yet. I don’t care. The process is more important than the product right now. I’m still cutting my fiction teeth (when they aren’t getting knocked out in a rebounding scrum), but I’m feeling better about my ability than I was a year ago when I started to take a long look at exploring the genre.
There was a time when I lived for Basketball, when I loved it more than I now love baseball. I had good cause: everything I held sacred in the basketball universe was bouncing in my direction: The Detroit Pistons were bruising their way to back-to-back championships, Reggie Miller and the Indiana Pacers were on the rise, Bob Knight was still commanding the Indiana Hoosiers, and my own Ball State Cardinals were dominating the Mid-American Conference and surging past the opening rounds of the NCAA tournament. I knew as much about basketball then as I know about baseball now, hence I understand the importance of rebounding. Christian Laettner, Larry Johnson, and Chris Webber were dominant rebounders in the college ranks, while the likes of Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Dennis Rodman, Horace Grant, and Patrick Ewing all ruled the boards in what I consider the Golden Age of the NBA. Grabbing the boards, clearing the glass… whatever you call it, rebounding is a sine qua non to every successful team because it allows you to control the game. Little did I know twenty years ago that I would not only be summoning the spirits of legendary rebounders to inspire my writing, but that I would drop their names as I created a sentimental, self-indulgent lead-in to a blog post about something I’m writing…
…because I’m Rebounding right now.
It started three weeks ago when I was flipping through my journal and came across a short story I started writing last June. It has sat there unfinished, though I knew what I wanted to do with it. I backed off it after a few days of energetic scribbling because it started to feel derivitive of something a student of mine had written a few weeks earlier. I didn’t think much about cutting it loose, either. I did make some use of it when I referenced it in a thinly-veiled piece of meta-fiction I wrote later in the summer, but that was it. It was fine with me that the story was dead. I didn’t feel any pangs of guilt like I have with other pieces; the practice of writing it was enough for me since I was (am) working on my fiction skills. But then I took another look at it three weeks ago and saw some sparkle in it.
I think now that I can finish the story by establishing the right context for it. I liked that I had a narrator with a unique–though unsavory–voice. She relays some pretty damning information about herself, and I remember feeling satisfied developing that voice as I wrote the story. My issue, though, became one of logic. People don’t usually spout off stories that make themselves look shabby; at least not most “normal” people. So I figured out a plausible way to make her abnormal. I started to rewrite, but I still wasn’t feeling it because the voice that drove the story was diminishing by the paragraph. I had to find a way to preserve it; I had to find a way to let her talk honestly about herself in a setting in which it was logical to do so, and in which she was comfortable doing so. That reminded me that Oscar Wilde was right: Setting is everything. How interesting it was to finally hear myself say that after I have said it to my Creative Writing students ad infinitum.
So I thought of a setting that works for what I want. To preserve her voice, though, I have to let another character tell her story, which means I’ll be using a frame narrative.
Finally, there’s something else that I tell my Creative Writing students (actually, I plead with them about this): Never throw away your writing. No matter how sucky your first attempt is, never throw it away. You don’t have to show it to anybody, but you should never throw it away. You never know when you might come back to it with a different set of eyes and take it in a different direction. That’s how writers score rebounds for themselves.
I’m none too fond of reposting news stories, but given recent discussion of True Grit on The Seeker, I thought this to be something worth passing along. Click on the link above to check out the article.