Watching football, hoping for something that is not there

On Sunday afternoon I hauled our television upstairs from the family room and placed it beside our large front window, where the reception is best.   I dumped a bag of popcorn into a bowl, pulled up two chairs, and invited Jay to sit beside me for the Patriots-Broncos game.  For fifteen rapt minutes he stared straight ahead while his left hand shuttled automatically between the bowl and his open mouth, popcorn crumbs spilling into the creases of his jeans, a smear of white cheddar forming around his mouth.

This was an unusual event in our house.  We don’t do much that counts as pure leisure time.  Most of the hours of the week we shuttle between chores or mark time against a schedule that sometimes feels like our only bulwark against entropy.

My desire to watch football on this particular Sunday was motivated by the way I remember similar afternoons feeling growing up.  In my dad’s house football was the main event each Sunday.  We’d drift around after breakfast until the early game came on, eat wings and nachos, and welcome the arrival of the late-game, from sunny Arizona or Raider Nation in LA, as a contrast with the encroaching winter darkness outside our windows.

I liked those Sunday afternoons as a kid because they felt safe.  The world was simple from 1pm-7pm, just football and snacks during the last languid hours of the weekend.  I think I was trying to recapture that feeling this past Sunday when I brought the TV upstairs. I wanted life to feel simple, contained, controlled, easy, for just a few hours.

And to an extent it did.  I drank Great Lakes Christmas Ale while Jay raced to the bottom of the popcorn bowl.  Caroline bounced Wally on her lap.  He’s been sick for the last few days, but the frantic glow of the television seemed to take his mind off his stuffy nose.  At the commercial breaks I ran into the kitchen and worked on dinner (Tunisian fish cakes with paprika aioli), chopping the herbs after a Tim Tebow touchdown run, measuring the spices at the two-minute warning.

I recently thought about how those Sunday afternoons growing up might have felt for my dad.  They felt safe for me but I imagine that for him the experience was always more complicated than that, with concerns about money and the responsibility of raising three kids playing on his mind as we munched nachos side-by-side, cheered the Giants, stoked the fireplace when the flames got low.

And in retrospect I realize that even for me those afternoons didn’t feel completely safe in the way I idealize them. I remember the faint feeling of dread I’d get when commercials for 60 Minutes came on—that stopwatch ticking ominously, counting down the seconds until our Sunday afternoon bubble burst and it would be time to do homework.

This past Sunday our football Eden began to fray by halftime: Wally’s cold started to make him fussy again; Jay grew bored and started threatening to run his cheddar-stained fingers across the TV screen; the effects of two 7% beers began to muddle my head. I took the tilapia from the fridge and began to chop.  A piece of fish fell on the floor, another flew up and stuck to the side of the coffee pot.

That night when I went to bed my heart was beating fast.  I thought about that afternoon—the few hours when everything was in its right place, and then the time after that, the time at the margins of consciousness where the edge crumbles, things aren’t so certain, and there’s the real possibility of something terrible happening.

And this is what I wonder, almost more intensely than I wonder anything else: Is life going to feel safe like a story, or in the end is it bound to scare the ever-loving shit out of me?

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