The Meaning of Celebrity in a World of Life and Death

 

Craig Sager just died and I’m upset about it.

I know why, but I don’t understand why. I’m sad because he’s been a fixture in my sports-watching life, because he was a good man who suffered with dignity, and because he brought joy and encouragement to millions of other people like me who like to watch sports. But I don’t understand why a man I’ve never met, one man in a world of billions of people, can affect me with his passing.

Dylann Roof has been convicted of mass murder.

Justice. Yes it is justice for nine people with nine names most of us cannot recall. Dylann will go to prison for the rest of his life, or he will be put to death and pass from this world in the same way that the nine people he murdered passed on. One imbalanced young man indoctrinated into the lie of white supremacy will be punished after it is too late, and the system that created him will go on. Just as the cancer that ravaged Craig’s body went on. Just as the specter of this insidious disease continues to stalk humanity.

Craig and Dylann are a strange yin yang on my Twitter news feed.

2016 has insisted on taking. Around the world it has been a ceaseless wave of death and destruction, one disaster after another reducing the lives of people to tally marks on a grim scoreboard. It has taken from us some of our most beloved entertainers and public figures with alarming frequency. It has pulled American democracy and decency to the brink. It has eroded the truth and propagated the darkness.

Time and again it has presented us with the horrors of life and death, and the fragile border between the two.

Amid all of this death “out there,” 2016 has made me face mortality at the expense of my innocence. In July, two of my friends were swept off a pier into Lake Michigan by a rogue wave and drowned. In September, my little cousin and and a pilot fell from the sky and were killed in the randomness that a plane crash embodies.

It has been the year in which repetition has sharpened “Why, God, why?” into “Why, goddammit, why?”

I know, as James Baldwin said, “that a person is more important than anything else, anything else.” I believe that every human being, from Socrates to Dylann Roof, bears the image of God. And that is a sacred thing of awesome meaning, even if that God leaves so many questions unanswered, and even if that God seems so lax in protecting those fragile images from destruction.

I wonder about who lives, who dies, and who tells their story, and I’ve wondered, as I’m wondering today, how we so easily assign value to some lives over others, and why some deaths matter and some don’t. I wonder why we spotlight lives after they’ve been extinguished while casting shadows on lives that might still be saved. Sometimes it seems to be all an irreverent, profane, ignorant, and hypocritical carnival of emotional indulgence to mourn the passing of a celebrity, or to allow ourselves a few days of wallowing in grief when a personal tragedy strikes. It isn’t, but it’s easy to be cynical. Everyone dies. Everyone suffers. Couldn’t these just be meaningless distractions?

Perhaps in past days I would have said yes: Paying so much attention to Craig Sager’s death is making too much out of one person when so many other people die every day. I might say that it is our fascination with the individual that makes Dylann Roof the name that endures, rather than the names of his victims. And maybe, at the depths of my cynicism, I’d castigate us all for caring about sports so much that a man in funny suits could become so famous.

But it is not so this day. I think I’m coming to understand why we care about losing Craig, Muhammad, Phife, David, Alan, Alan again, Kimbo, Prince, and Leonard, and why it’s okay for us to care, maybe even why it’s necessary.

You’ve had a tough day. You and a million other people. Your job is difficult. Your boss is a jerk. Traffic was heavy. Your relationships are strained. Your nerves are frayed. The world doesn’t make sense. You turn on the news and everything is shit. War is shit. Politics are shit. The active destruction of the earth is shit. The cyclical spiral of history pock-marked by the randomness of catastrophe is shit. Your prayers feel cold and the holy text is full of more violence, or maybe your existential limbo is cold and your atheistic articles and vlogs are pretentious and arrogant. So you turn on the Thursday night NBA game on TNT. Your team isn’t playing, but that’s okay because they’re awful this year. Only it turns out that TNT for whatever reason is airing a game between two teams who haven’t made the playoffs in about a hundred years.

But then, at the end of the first quarter, your television set lights up with a suit jacket made from the fabric of a garish sofa. The man in the jacket is Craig Sager, who you’ve seen in a hundred times in these delightfully awful outfits, sharing insightful reporting before the games, and braving these post-quarter interviews with Gregg Popovich, and smiling as Kevin Garnett tells him that he’s finally gone too far and needs to burn his outfit.

You like Craig. He makes you smile.

But then Craig gets cancer. Because of course, why not?

And Craig loses weight and loses hair. He has to take time away from work. And you’re so happy when Craig comes back because you like Craig and he brings a sense of stability and normalcy. Even when everything else is wrong Craig is right, and he’s right even though he’s having to fight for his life against a disease that is causing him so much pain as it tries to kill him.

And then, finally, Craig dies.

And, in the wake of his death, you remember that other people like Craig, too. That’s why he was given an ESPY and why he received ovations when he returned to sideline reporting. You remember that other people love sports, and that sports bring us together, and that sports soothe the things that hurt. And so you all, together, mourn Craig’s death and celebrate his life, even if millions of other nameless people are dying of cancer.

It’s the same for people who loved listening to Tribe, Bowie, “Hallelujah,” and “I am the greatest!”

Craig is not a more valuable human being than my friends Adam and Kurt or my cousin Olivia. He isn’t even more valuable than Dylann Roof. He isn’t less valuable than Muhammad Ali or Gandhi or Joan of Arc. He had his own flaws and shortcomings, like everyone does. There are probably more talented reporters who have remained ignominious. But there are some people whose role in life is to be a public figure. To be someone who brings us joy, or who shares our pain. Someone who excites and instills, someone who soothes and consoles. Someone who brings about a sense of stability and normalcy, who reminds us that this is water.[1]

To have those people is a wonderful thing. To lose them is a terrible thing.

In a strange way, momentous death magnifies anonymous death. For in the passing of the renowned dearly departed, we gain a great appreciation for the crimson cord[2] that binds us together in this thing, making each life that much more important and the protection and cultivation of life that much more urgent.

So thank you, God, for Craig Sager.

And thank you, Craig, for being a part of my sports and for living life the way you did. I’ll miss you.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

– Peter

1 HT David Foster Wallace’s famous commencement address.
2 HT My brother Propaganda.

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If Only this was Actually the End of the Election

“All our ignorance brings us nearer to death.”

cincinnatus

“To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.”

We watched this thing together, and together we talked our way through it, laughed our way around it, and trudged in absurdist fury to this day, this day when the thing that went too far would go no farther. And now this thing, this collected experience which tinged every area of life, has come to its finale, its conclusion, its end.

No. Of course it hasn’t really. This is only the beginning, and we’ve known – if not all along then at least for some time – that this would not end in the ballot box.

To do this, to move along like we used to, would mean to go back, to unexperience and to unknow. But we can’t. It cannot be like it used to be – not after 2016.

It’s been a year that will go down with the other big years, the digits that evoke thoughts and feelings without any specific event mentioned, like 2008 and 2001 recently, 1968, 1929, 1865 and 1776 before, and so many more. But it isn’t just a milestone like a turn of a century or an important event  like the end of a war. This thing is, like a select few years have been, a tectonic shift in society and culture in America. Our collective consciousness is forever changed – it forever exists in relation to this thing.

For some, this is not the first such shift. It is important to them – certainly – but they have done this before. But for many, me included, this is a year, a time, and a series of events unlike any other in its seismic effect on the way we see and experience the world.

It’s been a loss of innocence. The auras around leaders and institutions are gone. The frauds have struck their colors. The experts have gaffed and the newscasts have chased it all into the nonsensical void. How can any trust be given to elected officials, any faith placed in agencies and bureaus, any credence given to pundits and religious leaders, any credibility granted to the news and the papers?

Now we know that this country is much more racist, sexist, and xenophobic than we ever thought. And we know that good people will set that aside on the strength of ignorance.

Now we know that there are strings being pulled no one knows about. Now we know they’ll try to force us into choices we don’t want to make.

Candidates and parties and systems can never be seen the same.

We’ve had to hear our family and friends and anonymous trolls say things we wish we hadn’t heard them say.

We’ve been disappointed – time and again.

Wednesday won’t make things better – no matter how it goes. 2017 won’t either. It’s out in the open now. We know things now, things that will stay with us as we move forward.

But that is all we can do. We have to move forward, knowing what we know, and hoping to make it better. Hoping this sort of thing never has to happen again.

And maybe it will get better. Maybe that will be the great silver lining in this thing, and the fires it lit will fuel us to fight and win. But maybe not. Maybe it only gets worse. Maybe there’s too much hate. Maybe this awareness will only engender apathy. I wish I knew.

Maybe it is ultimately out of our hands, but let’s control what we can.

So if wherever we are – around the dinner table, at the coffee shop, on Facebook and Twitter, at the pipeline, in the streets, outside the courthouse, in the classroom, in the capital, and, maybe mostly important, within our own hearts and minds – let us make a stand for change. For faith, hope, and love.

Forth now, and fear now darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

– Peter

The Breathtaking Reaches of Stephen Curry

Whether or not he has become the league’s best player, he’s easily the most compelling.

curryshotchartryansimpson

Last Spring I declared an end to LeBron’s reign and hailed the ascension of Stephen Curry.

And then, when all was finished and done save the formalities, LeBron entered the Avatar State and flipped the script in a way only he can. Now, for the second time in LeBron’s career, we can all relax and just enjoy watching him play without the nerve-wracking drama that accompanies his place in the epic tales of the NBA.

But, even if LeBron defended his throne and established a reign of prosperity in Cleveland all while making safe his legacy, he is no longer the NBA’s most intriguing character. The would-be usurper, Stephen Curry, has at least taken that role.

Curry has now become, almost without anyone realizing it, the most fascinating athlete in American sports. Once merely a mesmerizing exhibition shooter, he has become, on and off the court, a Picasso of phenomena, a microcosm of Americana, a creature of contradictions, and a mannequin of hyperbole.

On the court, Curry has defined his game through the impossible. He is the best shooter to ever live. He was MVP in 2015 and then raised his game in every way the following year. He makes shots no one else even bothers to shoot. He throws passes no one else thinks to throw. When he starts on a hot streak, even opposing fans can’t help but ooh and ah. We have never seen, and may never see, a player do the things he does.

And yet, in two consecutive Finals, he has been…well, bad. He led the greatest regular-season team in history into a series against a rag-tag team trying to divvy up minutes between Kevin Love and Richard Jefferson, got a 3-1 lead, and then lost.

Earlier that season, Curry made his bones with the most ice-cold game-winner of recent memory, as he pulled up just beyond half-court to sink the Thunder. But there were no such heroics in the Finals. Just boneheaded behind-the-back passes.

We’re in a place, like we were with LeBron, where we have to ask: is the league’s preeminent superstar able to get it done when it really matters?

Oh, but the schizophrenia hardly stops there.

He has won the last two MVPs, but it’s only going to be a matter of weeks before we start asking if the Warriors are actually Kevin Durant’s team.

He was once the scrappy, undersized kid from a small school who made his way in the NBA. Now the deck is totally rigged in his favor. Success was once a dream, but now it’s an expectation.

Kids imitate his game because it doesn’t require supernatural size or athleticism, but it is no less unattainable.

He’s supposedly the humble superstar, but it turns out he’s less than gracious in defeat. He’s a model citizen, but he threw a temper-tantrum that ended with him throwing his mouthguard into the stands. He is supposed to be the happy-go-lucky team leader, but I cannot think of another player who exhibits worse body language on the court.

His wife, pertinent to the conversation because they made her pertinent, is simultaneously some sort of ideal spouse (according to some) and a salty “oops better delete that” Tweeter.

The NBA’s most popular player is supposed to be cool, but Curry is not cool. He doesn’t look cool, talk cool, Tweet cool, or dress cool. He has the most uncool sneakers any of us have ever seen. His commercials are dreadful. His on-court dance moves are kind of annoying.

Who is this guy?

Stephen Curry is the point at which our current conversations and debates collide.

He is the embodiment of basketball’s evolution, the business end of the jump-shot trident. His game is the antidote to big-man basketball, the perfection of the small-ball revolution, and a peerless demonstration of efficiency.

His career can be used as evidence for building a team the “right” way while also being a clear example of Super Team construction.

His Christian faith is well-known, but that conversation is usually minimized or tabled in the post-Tebow world.

Stephen Curry is a racial conversation. He is a black man with light skin, which, if you know your cultural and literary history, is a unique space to occupy in America, one which comes with its peculiar trials and advantages. As athletes rediscover their activism, he largely remains silent. As his fellow Bay Area athlete, Colin Kaepernick, bears the nation’s tumult, mums the word from Curry. As his hometown erupted in protest over police violence, Charlotte’s most famous athlete did next to nothing. His coach – his coach – says more profound things about social issues.

His game is made for GIFs and Vines. He is poised at any time to break the internet and enter the highlight reels. If the internet could draft a basketball team, he’d be on it (along with DeAndre Jordan, J.R. Smith, Russell Westbrook, and Kristaps Porzingis). He is the player for iGeneration.

There is no way an athlete can be all of these things at once.

And yet, he is.

I’ve written quite a few things about LeBron James, and one of the things I’ve found is that we, as basketball-watching people, squandered most of his career. While he was being singularly great, we were busy bickering about his mental fortitude, his career choices, and his legacy. And, before we know it, his career will be over. We missed so many opportunities to just enjoy watching him be special.

We need to learn from our mistakes as we enter the Curry epoch. Curry is unlike anything we have seen, and, if we’re not careful, we might miss something truly significant. The problem with Curry is that it’s tough to know where we should focus our attention. What’s the focus: regular season blowouts, or Playoff challenges? Dazzling dribbles, or lame commercials? His adorable daughter, or his own sulking? His behind the scenes good deeds, or his silence in the spotlight? And how do we frame this? Is he a perpetual underdog, or an odds-on villain?

It all demands to be watched.

Among the NBA’s stars, he comes up short in many regards: Westbrook is more entertaining, Damian Lillard is cooler, LeBron is better, Kawhi Leonard is more professional. But none cover such a mind-bending expanse of possibility. Curry enters territory accessible only to him.

Though he abides in a sphere of existence none of us can ever approach, through Stephen Curry the landscape of our sports and culture unfolds.

It’s probably too much to be contained within one man. Watching him grapple with it will be the story that defines the NBA for years to come.

Happy basketball season, everyone.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

– Peter

As I Lay Maturing

The seasons turn and I take stock.

Timeless by t1na

Timeless by t1na

22 means very little. In seven weeks I’ll be 23, and that won’t change anything. Age is just a number, but it’s equally true that age is anything but a number. What does 22 actually tell you about me?

My age is really more accurately described this way: I’m old enough to know how young I am. My maturity has grown enough to support an introspective vision of my immaturity. Before I was blinded by the bliss of youth, and someday I’ll be old enough to know I’m old enough.

My first year in college, when I thought I knew more than I know now, I read a little book about young love called Green Wheat, by Collette. Class discussion presented me with the idea that perhaps young people are actually tuned into the truth of some things, and that maybe maturity shrouds that understanding. I had believed that adults knew everything and that young people lacked the experience to have true understanding, but maybe it wasn’t always true that youth was wasted on the young.

As much as Green Wheat made me think, it didn’t eradicate my idea of adulthood being something I would gradually work towards and eventually arrive at when I reached a certain age. I had (and have) this image of what I’ll look like when I’m 28 or so, when I’m an adult and I know it. But once I asked my brother-in-law when it was that he realized that he was an adult and how I might know it, and he told me that, not only was he still becoming more adult all the time, but I was too. “You’re already an adult,” he said. He wasn’t just referring to my increasing responsibilities and privileges – he also meant that I was growing as a person into someone who could handle these responsibilities and privileges.

So on the one hand I am, most certainly, in possession of adult responsibilities and privileges, and, as I think my oeuvre indicates, adult thought-processes. I could convince you that I’m a grown man.

But, on the other hand, I feel overwhelmed by my responsibilities and constantly call for help, I neglect or abuse my privileges, and I’m painfully aware of naivete in my thinking.

This all comes to a head now as I enter a new phase in life as a graduate student as well as a graduate instructor. I’ll be engaging with complex ideas and making complex arguments as well as taking responsibility for some of the education of undergraduates. These changes in education and employment come just after moving out on my own.

This is the peculiar burden for this time of life. It’s the great haunting thing which confronts and confounds me every day – this ambiguous adulthood. I don’t know how to measure it or control it, and certainly not how to conjure it. Sometimes I don’t even know where to find it. Appearing and disappearing, sometimes it emerges from within my spirit and other times it foists itself upon me.

I’m an adult, but it feels like I’m in single-A ball, not the Majors.

And this brings me back to this limbo, in which I know I’m not a child even as I don’t feel like an adult, and this struggle, this trapped feeling, presents me with a question, a question that would be tough for anyone, but especially for a writer.

Does what I say matter?

I have ideas on myriad different things. About 90% of my life involves observing things, thinking about them, and then, hopefully, sharing those thoughts. I’m being asked to do that for a job now, as well as a part of my studies. And, in my best moments, when I’m feeling the message of Green Wheat and I remember my brother-in-law’s words, I think that maybe what I say does matter, and matters quite a lot, because I’m pretty good at saying things. And I have a lot of people, some of them very close to me, that positively build me up in this regard.

But then that number floats past me. 22; or, everything I haven’t done. 22 means I’m too young to have seen so much from the past, and it means I’m too young to have experienced so much of the future. And I’m a young 22 – when it comes to worldly experience, trust me, my students will be more cosmopolitan than I am in a number of ways.  They’re kids, but I’m just a kid with bills who can legally buy and smoke weed. What do I know?

When I get to thinking like this, I fall back into looking forward to the 28-year-old version of me. Then, and only then, will I really know what I’m talking about. Then my opinion will matter. Then I can change the world, at least in a few small ways. And there are plenty of older folks who would rather I wait until I’m older before I pretend to know something.

Maybe, then, I should just keep quiet.

Or maybe not? By now you see the quandary of my age.

My middle school English teacher had a quote on the wall of her classroom, something that her husband, my middle school social studies teacher, had said years before: “They say that we are young and the world has much to show us. We say that we are young and have much to show the world.”

That quote barely registered in my pubescent brain. It came from a world that was foreign to me. I was young, but the kind of young that lacks self-awareness. But I’m there now.

And maybe I have something to show the world.

Just because I vacillate between feeling like a hopelessly immature adult and a decidedly mature child doesn’t mean I have to revert to childish ways or work my way towards the adult arena in order to have a relevant voice. So I will speak in a way befitting a man of my station, and what I say will be a reflection of this season, for better or for worse.

As I go through the daily exercise of responsibility and discovery, millions of other twenty-somethings face the same gauntlet of aging expectations. Which is comforting. But also not – because the experience of people my age has been distilled to cranky hit-pieces on why millennials are the worst and recycled Buzzfeed lists about things we all have in common. So in the end I guess I’m just reminded that 75% of adulting involves not being an adult.

But this distracts, if not outright denies, young people from their proper place. A fear and uncertainty about this middle ground between adolescence and adulthood shrouds this age bracket from within and without. This time in life becomes caricatured by its awkwardness, its naivete, and its precarious position that resembles a lifter just strong enough to carry something just heavy enough to hurt someone. And so we are asked to put on this fear and doubt and do a delicate dance in a maturity masquerade.

Nonsense, I say. If we wait until then to be real people, we’ll be waiting all our lives. Yes – we are the future, but we exist now, and we have been given just enough powder to go boom. So make noise, whatever noise that is well and good for a young adult to make.

I imagine it sounds like whatever noise a platypus makes.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

– Peter