Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Summer School: Songs of Innocence and Experience

Subject: Faulkner, William. “An Innocent at Rinkside” in The Greatest Hockey Stories Ever Told, ed. by Bryant Urstadt. Guilford, Connecticut: The Lyons Press, 2006 (2004)

Representative Soundbite: “To the innocent, who had never seen it before, it seemed discorded and inconsequent, bizarre and paradoxical like the frantic darting of the weightless bugs which run on the surface of stagnant pools. Then it would break, coalesce through a kind of kaleidoscopic whirl like a child’s toy, into a pattern, a design almost beautiful, as if an inspired choreographer had drilled a willing and patient and hardworking troupe of dancers- a pattern, design which was trying to tell him something, say something to him urgent and important and true in that second before, already bulging with the motion and the speed, it began to disintegrate and dissolve.” (pg. 122)

I have not read this entire anthology. It was given to me, months ago, by a kind-spirited aunt who, in an attempt to indulge my newfound passion, went to her local suburban Illinois bookstore and picked up the only hockey book available. Appreciating the gesture, I was still apprehensive of the book itself. Anthologies irritate me, they’re halfway, patchwork books, a bunch of voices shouting in opposite directions, tied together by only the thinnest threads.

It wasn’t the familiarity of the name ‘Faulkner’ that caught my attention. There were other familiar names on the contents page, names recommended again and again, names found in my notebook, double-underlined, on a page headed ‘Hockey Writers You Should Read’- Gare Joyce, Dave Bidini, Red Fisher. But most of them, well, I have their books in my pile already, and it seems almost insulting to read them in little snack-sized excerpts when the full meal is right there. Faulkner is interesting on this particular list only because he is out of place- a Southern writer discussing a Northern game, a rogue novelist on a list of sportswriters.

Even in the introductory blurb, the editor-collector seems skeptical of Faulkner’s presence. The piece is added, he comments, essentially because not many serious, famous, literary writers have ever written anything about hockey, and he felt that he couldn’t reject the lone example he’d come across. The tone is the slightly belligerent self-denigration- I don’t really like this, I’m not sure if it belongs here, I don’t think it’s particularly good hockey writing per se, but hey, the words are pretty enough, and who am I to criticize William fucking Faulkner?

It’s a weird little piece, no doubt, not even 4 pages long- shorter, probably, than my average post. By the standards of the other writers in the anthology, it’s true that it’s barely even hockey writing, for as much as it begins with hockey it veers abruptly into rambling digressions on the containment of nature and- of all absurdities- American nationalism, and ends abruptly having made no particular point whatsoever. It’s more of a series of assorted notebook-jottings than a proper essay. In this brief scene, a hypothetical ‘innocent’, someone who doesn’t know hockey as Faulkner didn’t know hockey, watches a game between the Canadiens and the Rangers at Madison Square Garden. He is barely cognizant of the teams- from the few names in the text itself you can deduce that the Habs are involved, but he clearly has minimal prior knowledge of the players and absolutely none of the context of the game within its season or its era. It isn’t a story about any actual hockey game, and it gives none of the information that any knowledgeable hockey fan would demand to know ‘what happened’- nothing about the particular plays used, the shifts of momentum, the fights, the strategies, the line matches, the specific performances of any particular players, not even the score, not even who won. It’s an impression or suggestion of a game, supplemented by the rambling thoughts of a person unaware of what he is supposed to notice. It’s not, by any standard, ‘good hockey writing’.

Nevertheless, I’ve reread it maybe a dozen times in the past few weeks- first with an excited flush of recognition, and later with a sense of drifting loss. Perhaps irrationally, perhaps presumptuously, I see something of myself in this story. I remember that feeling, hockey-blind but trying to watch anyway, mystified and confused but somehow excited and fascinated at the same time, and the strange mix of juvenile impulses and very adult philosophizing that float through one’s head in those early, uncertain moments of hockey fandom.

I know that not everyone experiences hockey-addiction the way I do, and that’s partly a function of discovering the sport at roughly 3 times the typical age for the flowering of hockey-love. Most hockey fans, especially in Canada, know the game from childhood and seem to have little memory of what it was like to not understand it, if indeed they didn’t come out of the womb with an intuitive grasp of hockey. But it’s a very different thing to get hooked on hockey as an accidental adult, because it comes not from culture or nostalgia or any proper experience, but from an almost subconscious attraction. In the early days of my fandom, I would exhaust my friends’ ears trying to describe it, that thing, that sensation, that initial first-run gut amazement that is so so so so so sososososososo unique, but I realized quickly that they had not the slightest clue what I was talking about. They knew hockey properly, and they knew the right way to see it, and the right way to talk about it. Either they don’t see that thing at all or they’ve seen it too long and it’s been drowned in the things you’re supposed to pay attention to- the roles, the systems, the plays.

I envied, and still do, the kind of understanding that comes with proper hockey fandom. It’s an impressive set of skills in itself, the ability to watch hockey closely and knowledgeably, the ability to follow the speed of it and grasp the strategies, to say nothing of all the additional expertise that goes into amateur GM-ing- the structuring of teams, the nuances of contracts and trades. And then on top of that, the endless business, revenues, owners, unions. And then there’s statistics… oh my. For something that’s usually considered a ‘hobby’ or ‘entertainment’, passionate hockey fans have assimilated a dazzling volume of information and perfected some very nuanced analytical modes. The conventional language of hockey fandom, and the worldview that supports it, is far from easy to learn.

In the past months, I have made a concerted and fairly conscious effort to learn how to ‘talk hockey’ properly, and while I still have a long way to go, I think I’ve done alright for myself. I’ve learned something of how to objectively evaluate roster quality, I’ve learned to recognize different systems of play, I’ve learned to appreciate the individual quirks and talents that make players unique, and the established roles that make them interchangeable. I’ve learned little bits of the history and culture of the game, the open questions, the common debates and various factions that undertake them. It’s not everything, by a long shot, but it’s a good start, and a lot to show for less than a year’s interest. I can now participate intelligently in a wide variety of hockey conversations without interjecting Kant or Farrokhzad, and my hockey-knowledgeable friends approve. I have become less strange.

But every now and then, I regret the acquisition of conventional hockey knowledge. Conventional hockey talk is good, on some level I adore it and do not intend to denigrate its value. But conventional hockey talk is also, well, conventional- it’s the common denominator (although I’d never call it ‘lowest’), it’s the base line, it’s the most basic, the thing that everyone can relate to. It is soothing, it is necessary, it is communication, but it is also confining. The established ways of speaking, by the very fact of their being established, repress as much as they express. Conventional hockey talk leaves much unsaid. It is silences, doubts and longings which are acknowledged only so long as they go unspoken.

Proper hockey knowledge, the kind the supports most hockey writing and hockey fandom, teaches a way of seeing the game. It defines our attention, a process of communal selection through which the most important players, most important teams, and most important events are chosen. It is the conventions of hockey knowledge that tell me what to watch the various teams for: the Senators for their ludicrous first line, the Devils for their trap, the Ducks for their violence, the lower-echelon teams- Coyotes, Blue Jackets- for their pained incompetence. Who knows what I might see in these groups, if I didn’t already know what to look for? It is the conventions of hockey knowledge that tell me which plays are exceptional, what is worthy of a highlight reel, and therefore what is important in any given game. I remember once upon a time I was often entranced by strange little bits of games, just as thrilled by a slick takeaway as an elegant save, but somewhere along the line I stopped seeing beautiful plays that didn’t have practical consequences. It’s hard, very hard, to unlearn conventional knowledge. Once acquired it is reinforced constantly, and the price of deviation is the appearance of idiocy.

The Faulkner essay reminds me that I’m losing something, in my rush to become knowledgeable, and it might have been something worth holding onto. There is something about hockey you can only see when you don’t know hockey, when you’re not looking for the right things or any particular things at all. The last part of the quotation I began with, the part about the design that seems to tell something he can’t quite grasp before it disappears- I knew that once, I felt that, almost exactly, and until I came across this essay I’d begun to feel that it was nothing more than a naïve hallucination. But not everything that’s seen in ignorance is wrong, there’s a clarity of sorts in unknowing, and I miss it now. More and more knowledge comes and that feeling slips further and further away and I know I will spend the entire rest of my life with the sport trying to recapture it and I never will. I will keep saying things, I will say it’s fast and I will say it’s beautiful but over more and more time that becomes it’s own cliché- I say it because I know it’s true, but I feel it less and less. I couldn’t name it or articulate it well at the beginning and I still can’t, but when I started this blog the aspiration was to capture that thing about hockey that had captured me. Over time, I’d given up on that, I’d discovered the details and the conventions and found that they are fascinating in their own right, and it seemed less important to worry about the Big Why that would only isolate me from the community of hockey fans I’ve grown to love almost as much as the game itself.

Sometimes I think that the proper way of seeing hockey is a gigantic lie, that the system and the order that we train ourselves to see in the process of becoming knowledgeable fans is just an optical illusion or a thin veneer over an underlying form of earthy sublimity that none of us can really express. But then I wake up and remind myself that it’s only a game and entertainment, and it’s silly to use words like ‘sublime’ for that sort of thing.

A self-evident truth: People who write about hockey know hockey, and know it well and properly. They know how to communicate about hockey. People who do not know hockey do not write about it, and that’s probably for the best. I look at my own blogging, back in the days when I knew hardly anything of what I was talking about, and it’s laughable to me- as laughable as Faulkner’s digressions about cigarette smoke and beauty queens are to the collector of the anthology. Both he and I were fools to try to write this game without the proper background, the only difference is that he knew it and- after squeezing out a few pages of pretty words- went back untroubled to the things he knew better, whereas I did not. I see the same threads he did: chaos and order, violence and sex, nature, entertainment, and spectacle, nationalism, voyeurism, and distraction, but unlike him I’m not content to let them trail off, or leave them- and the mystery and splendor of the action itself that makes them so ferociously, urgently compelling- to the tender mercies of conventional hockey-speak.

In the midst of a book of very good but very standard hockey stories- profiles of great and/or beloved players, narratives of childhood experiences, humor, nationalistic meditations- I love Faulkner’s barely-four-pages-of-randomness because it reminds me that there is (or should be) room in hockey writing and hockey fandom for the innocent and the unconventional, for people with improper knowledge and esoteric viewpoints, for those who see differently. It’s a strange, seductive game worthy of passion and worthy of craziness, and worth being discussed in any register by anyone who cares to do so. What remains to be seen, for me, is if it’s possible to find a balance- to know and understand and appreciate all that there is in the established ways of hockey fandom, without forsaking the sense of wonder and longing that brought me to the game in the first place. Maybe I keep re-reading this story because I hope it will give me the confidence to trust my own goofy instincts about the game, even when they seem crazy, even when my friends shake their heads and roll their eyes in indulgent disapproval. Or maybe it’s just because it gives me my own sense of precedent. After all, if William fucking Faulkner can write naïvely about hockey, why can’t I?