Thursday, March 15, 2007

Woke Up New

Very long, and not very relevant to anyone but me, but what the hell, it’s only a blog.

Time for some honesty: The Habs are not doing well. Good win on Tuesday notwithstanding, of the five Eastern Conference teams still in competition for the bottom two playoff slots, they have the least chance of making it. This is partly because everyone but Carolina has games-in-hand over them, but also because they are, unfortunately, the most uneven and least streaky of the remaining contenders. They just do not amass wins in quantity over short stretches of time, which is exactly what they have to do. And even if by some miracle they do scrape in, the smart money says that they won’t go very far- too many weird injuries (When the hell did Perezhogin get a concussion anyway?) and various psychological and spiritual ailments (Yo, Sammy!) to say nothing of low scoring and unreliable goaltending. So while it is maybe premature to give up hope entirely, it is certainly high time I began preparing myself for the fact that the 2006-2007 Canadiens are likely to end their season not with a bang, but a whimper.

I don’t want to confront this prospect, but the pragmatic, realistic part of me knows it must be done. It was in that spirit, then, that a few games ago- after the ugly loss to Atlanta- that I asked my readers what, as long-term hockey fans, were the best strategies for coping with your team’s failure. It seemed like a necessary question to ask, and the responses were by turns humorous, practical, and compassionate, and very generously offered. Which makes me somewhat reluctant to say that, somehow, none of them actually made me feel much better about the Habs falling apart.

This is not to say they were bad responses, quite the contrary. If I had to boil down the advice I was given into one sentence, it would be: Look at the Big Picture. Yes, this season might be a loss, this particular version of the Habs might not be very good, but this is just a passing moment in time, and there is so much more to hockey. Look, say the readers, at la longue durée, the great hockey stories that develop over time- the rise and fall of careers, the process of drafting and building a team. Take comfort in the past, the bad teams who have quickly or unexpectedly turned into good teams, or in the great history of the Canadiens. Or hope for the future, knowing that all teams succeed eventually. Or just look around at all the many abysmally bad teams that have been and are to this day, and be glad that it isn’t worse.

This is great advice, not just in hockey, but in general. It is, really, the best advice you can give anyone who is tangled up in some comparatively trivial thing- which is to say, anything that isn’t immediately threatening his/her life or the lives of his/her loved ones. Life is long and time is longer, this too shall pass, and so on. But although I know the commentors are absolutely correct, I was not at all comforted by this view. It was the right answer, yes, but to the absolutely wrong question.

I like to pretend that the difference between my hockey fandom and everybody else’s is merely a matter of quantity- I have ¾ of a season while they have 5, or 12, or 33 seasons. It’s the same thing, just a matter of different levels of accumulated experience and knowledge, and it seems only logical to try to advance my own understanding by building on theirs. It works, in some respects, to have people who have been around longer explain things to me- how waivers operate, or the strategic theory underlying the neutral zone trap. But in other areas it fails miserably, because there are points at which my position vis-à-vis hockey right now is not just quantitatively different from others, but qualitatively different as well. The Big Picture is one of those points.

I know that the hockey I am watching now is not a thing unto itself, it is formed of a thousand metanarrative threads that stretch back over a century into the past and, insha’allah, even further into the future. There are countless arcs and rhythms to the history and culture of hockey. I know they’re there, but I can’t see them. When I try to step back and look at the big picture, there is no hockey in it- it wasn’t part of the past as I know it, and I cannot see where it will go in the future. Everything beyond this little silvery stretch, from October 2006 to March 2007, fades and blurs- a great mass of grey yarn.

I don’t have a big picture.

I don’t have any other team.

I don’t have any other season.

This is my first time.


There is nothing like the first time. Any first time: the first time you kiss, the first time you ride a rollercoaster, the first time you taste a mango. Things are always different when they are new to you and you to them, they’re sweeter and colder, and in some ways harder, but the first time is always somehow specific and sensational in a way that cannot be repeated.

When you’re young and everything is new, you love easily and freely. You’ll never love anything as an adult as deeply and purely and unapologetically as you loved so many things when you were 5 years old and had no reason not to trust your feelings. That very serious novel that you now call your favorite book, the one that you read in college and seemed to give purpose to your chaotic adolescent existence, you don’t love it half as much as you loved your favorite book as a child- that picture book that you carried around everywhere until it was reduced to tattered shards of paper held together with scotch tape. Your most prized adult possession is nothing compared to that stuffed mouse that you needed so badly you literally couldn’t sleep without it. No friend you’ve ever had has been so truly your friend as your really bestest friend forever was, back when you were too young to understand that friendship is hard. From an adult perspective, none of these things was really that great. The book was actually pretty lame, the stuffed mouse hideous, the friend someone you barely even knew except to play four-square with. But it didn’t matter, at the time, because you didn’t know any better, you didn’t have any reason to believe that this wasn’t the best book, the best toy, the best friendship that ever was or ever could be.

As we get older, we learn to be embarrassed of newness. We learn that there are objective scales of value in the world, that some things are really, truly better than others, and that it is a necessary part of living in society to be able to make qualitative judgments in line with those around you. We learn to like things because we should- the music, the books, the people who are objectively good- and we learn to rationalize the not-good things that we find ourselves attracted to anyway, the guilty pleasures. When we don’t know what is good or bad in a particular context, when we are new to something and ignorant of the scales of value involved, we fake our way through it. Somewhere in adolescence everyone starts cultivating an attitude of world-weariness, as though we have seen and known too much when in fact we have encountered only a tiny fraction of the things in this life. There’s something simultaneously sexy and respectable about being experienced and knowledgeable, unshockable, being jaded, cynical, ironic. Newness is often unpleasant. A first time may be romantic in retrospect, but at the time it’s usually awkward and confusing, full of uncertainty and apprehension. When you’re new to something you usually fuck it up somehow. So we learn quickly how to avoid being new, or at least to hide it under a thick layer of carefully constructed ennui.

But one morning not so very long ago I woke up and realized that it had been a long time since I was new to anything. Not yet old, I had nevertheless reached the point where the growing-up phase of life was entirely behind me, and all that remained ahead was various versions of growing old. And with that comes the very sad certainty that there will not be very many more first times. Of course, there will be some things I will do that I haven’t done before, but most of them will be things that I somehow expect, that are analogous to previous experiences, the natural result of the paths I’ve chosen. Which is fine, I chose those paths for a reason and am more than happy to walk them, but all the really big firsts, whether the firsts that are big for everyone- first kiss, first sex, first love- or the odder firsts that have been big for me personally- first publication, first successful pronunciation of ‘ayn, first ex-pat year- have all happened already.

I should not, then, take hockey for granted, I should instead be ecstatically grateful for the way it blindsided me out of nowhere and gave me the opportunity to be new again. This is still my first hockey season, and these Canadiens are still my first hockey team, and it is perhaps important, perhaps essential for me to acknowledge that I cannot help but be idiotic about it on certain levels, as everyone is the first time they do anything. I cannot help but love this team as it is, in spite of its overall mediocrity, and I cannot help but naively and irrationally expect that they will win every game, and I cannot help but care desperately what happens to them, in every facet. This is not the reasonable perspective, but it is my perspective, because dammit, I don’t know any better.

Imagine the Habs, for a second, not as they are, but as they are for me. Imagine them as an oversized, cardboard book, big, multicolored balloon-letters on the front, My First Hockey Team. Imagine them as anthropomorphic cartoon animals- Mike Komisarek as a cheerful pink gorilla, Sergei Samsonov as a little red bird with an exaggerated frowny-face. See Saku. See Saku get cross-checked. Oh no! Poor Saku! See Shelly. See Shelly instigate. Instigate, Shelly, instigate! Chapter 3: Pleky and the Imaginary Hooking Penalty. Imagine one of those big inspirational posters on the wall in the 2nd grade: Everything I Know about Hockey I Learned from the Montreal Canadiens. Imagine, just for a second, that you didn’t know nor understand nor remember anything about hockey except for one season, and one team. Imagine how huge it would all seem, lacking any surrounding big picture, lacking any sense of perspective, as if it was indeed all the hockey that had ever been.

That is my position.


Purely by chance, I did find something that made me feel better, in an unlikely place- a comment on Habs Inside/Out before the St. Louis game:

In reply to E's comment, by J.T. on March 10, 2007 7:28 PM | Reply to this

Who's the most rational? I'd like to meet him or her!

As for me, I saw the writing on the wall about a month ago and got all the anger and frustration out then. Now I'm enjoying the last few games this team will be together, since I won't see them again for six months...and then they'll be a different group. In spite of the disaster this season has become, I'll actually miss some things. I'll miss Souray's big shot on the PP. I'll miss Kovalev's shootout goals. I'll miss the PK at its aggressive best producing those exciting shorthanded goals. I'll miss Huet standing on his head and bringing in a win after facing forty shots. That was fun stuff. I guess I'm not expecting much anymore, so I'm just waxing nostalgic and saying a long goodbye to the 2007 Habs.

There isn't much new in this, except the reassurance that there’s nothing wrong with an affection for this particular team, not the Canadiens franchise, not the team that they might be in a couple of years, but this particular very flawed but very interesting assortment of players and talents. It is the reminder I needed that I may only have 11 games left to indulge that affection, before I start accumulating all that experience and knowledge that leads to cynicism and world-weariness and the ever-present cognizance of the big picture- what T.H. White called ‘the seventh sense’. In addition to J.T.’s list, I could add easily a dozen more things worth loving. Significant things, like Markov throwing himself down the blueline to just barely keep the puck in the zone; Begin blocking shots, as he says, ‘like a goalie’; the huge rattling sound of Komisarek really landing a hit; and insignificant things too, the way that Bonk shuffles his skates before a face-off, or Johnson falling down after every single goal he gets. True, I will see many of these things again, but it’s unlikely that I’ll see them all on the same team, and more importantly, I don’t know if I’ll ever see any subsequent team in quite the same way. It’s only a matter of time before there are so many changes that I’ll no longer be able to pay attention to all these little details, and chances are, by the time I get to that point, I won’t miss the crazy level of investment I’ve had in this particular team, because I’ll have developed a broader, deeper, more nuanced relation to hockey as a whole, and- like most hockey fans- I won’t need this close identification with the specifics in order to really understand what I’m seeing.

For right now, though, it’s good to be in love, for the first time. Again.

[Cake-related note: Although this J.T. person gave the answer I liked best, it wasn’t really an official entry in the contest, so I can’t declare him/her the winner, and anyway, the question itself was mistaken, since I specifically posed it to people as long-term fans, even though it turns out that what I needed was a solution for a short-term fan. So I’m not really sure what to do, except to say that all the answers did all fulfill the secondary condition of entertaining me, so therefore everybody gets a cupcake. And I say that secure in the knowledge that I have almost no readers in Montreal, therefore it’s unlikely I’ll ever have to pay out. But next time I’m in Alberta, Arizona, Taiwan, or wherever the hell else y’all are, I promise: cupcake.]


Julian said...

That comparison of the Canadiens to the characters in a children's book is brilliant.

I see what you mean about not having any
"big picture" with regards to hockey to help you get your bearings in a losing season, so yeah, I guess most of the advice we passed on wouldn't be all that helpful.

But if you're happy being blissful in your new love, unaware of the pain of heartbreak, then there's not really much any of us can say. You would never listen if we told you to cool it a little, take your time, not to rush things, and you'd be right not to believe us cause we'd be hypocrites, especially considering we'd all been through it countless times before.

So try and enjoy the newness of it, and do what anyone else would do; listen to The Cure, get drunk with your buddies, and know that you've gotta wait another five months or so for a rebound.

Julian said...

ps, I'm only in Taiwan till December, so start planning now. I could go for a cupcake.

alice said...

first successful pronunciation of ‘ayn

Heh...this is one that atrophies so easily that you can have the joy of achieving many, many times over the years, as I've found, to my sorrow.

In terms of hockey, here's a potential first that you don't ever want to actually look forward to, but that is to be treasured nonetheless. Some seasons, nothing is expected of your team, but they start off doing well. You spend the first 20 games or so thinking that it's a fluke, and the second 20 games, wondering when the bubble is going to burst, but still enjoying the ride. The third 20 games, you're beginning to believe that they really are for real. The last 20 games (yeah, I know, it doesn't add up; so sue me!), you actively consider playoff matchups and wonder if you ought to make firm plans for anything in May or June. Even when the season's been a gift, it still hurts to lose, even if it's been a hell of a ride.

E said...

julian- if i had the drawing skills, i might actually make that children's book, except i'd have to make them win in the end, because that's just how it goes in children's books. and to be fair, i never said anything about being 'blissful'- that would be something of an exaggeration, given the overall path of the season thus far. but being able to enjoy it in spite of the lack of bliss is sort of more important anyway. also, i don't think it's going to take me 8 months of planning to obtain a cupcake, unless some unforseen tragedy befalls cake-girl, and i don't want to contemplate such a loss.

يا الس- هل من الممكن لأي واحد أن ينسي نطق العين حقيقاً؟ اذا كان ممكن، فسأبكي

and thanks for the preview, although it's awfully hard for me to envision what that sort of a season would be like at this point...

alice said... put my Arabic through a serious workout!! Fortunately, I still have dictionaries at home.

Aside from the general second language pronunciation/accent difficulties, I suspect that pronouncing ع is like any other physical skill in that it seems impossibly difficult, until you master it. In that sense, it's exactly like stopping on skates or shooting over the goalie's glove hand.

Julian said...

Is it odd that my computer recognizes Arabic script but just shows ?????? for Chinese characters? It's all the same for me at this point anyway, so I suppose it's not something I should really be concerned about.

The only illustrated kids book about the Habs (that I'm aware of) doesn't end happily, so it's not like you'd be breaking tradition or anything.

and yeah, I was using "blissful" for hyperbole, plus I was just trying to stretch the analogy a bit.

Yamp said...

That text made me feel a bit weird, because it is also my first year as a fan, and I'm already humorish and cynical about it. I guess I've missed my " hockey first love".

I like reading this blog, because I can usually relate. You write very well, E. :)

E said...

alice- wow, you must be really rusty if that put you through a workout... either that or i did something very wrong, my fusha is not always what it should be. but does this mean that i can be assured that i'll eventually learn how to stop properly? i hope so.

julian- actually, it's not odd that your computer has problems with chinese but not arabic- in my experience, most operating systems now automatically load everything they need to deal with all the world's major alphabetic systems, but don't do the same for ideogramatic systems- those usually need to be installed separately.

yamp- i think everyone has a different learning curve on these things. one thing that might make for a critical difference is whether or not you follow other sports- i might feel differently about it if i'd previously been a football/baseball/basketball fan, and could translate those experiences.

alice said...

My last actual attempts to pronounce Arabic fluently were probably 30 years ago; my last forays into Arabic philology and historical phonetics were 15 years ago. Of course, I've been filling my brain with other stuff in the interim.