Friday, November 05, 2010

Game 8: Where I Am

When the Habs begin to play, I am still lost in the final, restless dreams of the morning. Sometime during the first period, I will dredge myself from bed and embark on that awful ritual known as ‘starting the day’. My boys are taking faceoffs and laying checks, and I am processing myself for public presentation: contacts, shower, clothing, shoes, headphones and out the door. When the puck drops on the second period, I am walking down HePing East Road, devouring a wasabi rice ball and dodging impatient scooters. During the third, I am leading a line of bleary toddlers in my most stirring rendition of ‘Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes’; and by the time the marque finale is well and truly finalized, I am sitting down to Circle Time shouting, TIGER! We CANNOT eat our shoes! CANNOT!

In Montreal, game night was my most beloved ritual. Lacking a TV of my own, I went out to watch. The night would be black already by 7:30, that sharp deep black of real winter nights, against which everything shimmers, and I would make my way to one of the row of Greek cafes on St. Viateur. There among a crew of loud, chunky guys speaking any number of languages I didn’t understand, I would luxuriate in hot espresso and sweet biscotti and the near-miraculous unfolding of the plays. And on the walk home, with only the crunch of my boots and the whisper of my own rapid voice to keep me company, I would imagine the first draft of my post-game recap.

This is my one great regret about becoming a diaspora fan. I cannot properly watch the games. The other side of the world is not what it once was, thanks to the miracle of the internet, but it is still something. To watch the Canadiens, over here, involves a careful juggle. All day long I have to avoid the scores, which means most general-interest Canadian sites, as well as Habs blogs, Facebook, and sometimes my own email. When I get home, it takes three to six hours for the damn thing to download, by which time it might well be too late to actually watch. A busy week, for either the team or myself, means a backlog of games two or three deep. I am hopelessly, perpetually lagged from the rest of the Habistani community.

Sports fandom is largely a community of routines. The team schedule, and the media schedule that goes with it, structures a portion of your day, a portion somewhat smaller than work, but no less consistent. It’s part of what makes the bond so strong- whoever you are, whatever your class or age or race or lifestyle, if you are a fan in the home city, you are doing similar things at similar times. You are reading the same papers with your coffee on the same morning, you are tuning in to the same radio shows at lunch time, you catch the same analysts on the same regular programs, and of course, you sit down to watch the game at the same time. News and information travels your world by predictable routes. If you know something, chances are ten percent of the fans in the same city knew it at the exact same time, an hour later thirty percent will, and by the following morning, everyone who cares to know will be talking about it.

This shared habitus is powerful. It’s part of what gives you the sense that you know these people, although you’ve never met. It’s what makes How about that local sports team? such a reliable conversation-starter. When I was in Montreal, although my French was poor, I always knew what was buzzing through the common discourse. It was not a matter of learning or reading or studying, it was simply a matter of being and hearing, for everyone who was passionate about hockey- no small minority of people- was plugged in to everyone else, and the topics du jour were universally discussed. A friend once quizzed me on how I could ‘know’ what other people in Montreal thought about so-and-so’s play, and the question seemed ridiculous. Of course I cannot know exactly what one person might think, but how could I not know what everybody knows? Everybody knows what everybody knows.

Now, cut off from that, I have to piece together an awkward routine of my own, and it’s a lot of work for comparatively little reward. I get my hockey-theory fix on Western Conference blogs, who can be relied upon to make no reference to the Habs, and during those brief hours when I am fully caught up with the games, I scour site archives going back for days to deduce how my brethren have interpreted what I have just seen. My life consists of periods of complete hockey isolation interspersed with pockets of total hockey immersion, and I become grateful for the reprieve of Taiwan hockey, which is of poorer quality but at least can be experienced in real time.

A lot of expatriates lose all substance of NHL fandom. They retain a sort of ghost of an allegiance, but it’s mainly a sartorial thing- a few pieces of licensed gear to be dragged out in nostalgic moments, or as a kind of trap to lure other expats into conversation… So you’re from Edmonton? The team loyalty survives as a component of identity, but not as a practice. A casual NHL fan in Taiwan probably couldn’t name half ‘their’ current team. What it means to them, if it means anything at all and has not simply become a thoughtless vestigial custom, is entirely personal: a trace memory of who they were when they were home.

But even among those whose fanaticism dies hard, watching the games is usually the first thing to go. Partly it’s time pressure and partly it’s computer space and partly it’s just a lack of social cues, but… there’s something else too. The games are different. They feel grayer. It sounds ridiculous and quasi-mystical and maybe it is, but one feels it starting slowly and growing with time until it becomes undeniable: the game watched recorded in Taipei is not wholly the same game watched live in Canada. The same events take place, of course, but it’s almost like watching a reenactment. What should feel organic and spontaneous takes on a stale, rote feeling, as if the players are just going through the motions for your benefit. It is not really happening.

Watch too many recorded games and it starts to fuck with your sense of free will. This game is finished. Whatever will happen has already happened, days ago, it’s over and done and nothing different could possibly be. But, then again, it was always going to be whatever it was, regardless of my watching, wasn’t it? Live or recorded should make no difference to me, the viewer, for nothing in my attention could make it other than what it is. Was. The victory or loss that I am watching happen already happened, but more than that, it was always going to happen. The illusion, or delusion, is not the feeling of staleness in the recorded version, it’s the feeling of spontaneity in the live version.

All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again, as the Cylons say.

Like I said, old games, they fuck with your head.

Without that mysterious aura of the original (foreshadowing!), the temptation emerges to watch highlights, and once you go down that road, you never come back. Highlight hockey is a different sport, and once acclimated to it, it’s hard to be satisfied with the full version. Watching a shitty game live, over dinner or at a pub, carries the flush of the new and the warm comfort of community, and even then one is apt to feel that three hours of one’s life have been wasted. Watching a shitty game downloaded, however, it much worse, because you just chose to waste two hours of your life on an awful performance that was already over yesterday. If your team is having a bad year, you’re getting nothing in return for the investment of time and gigabytes. The highlights, on the other hand, take an eighth of the time and provide easily eight times the thrill, a game with no down, no dull, no trap, no long wait for video review, just everything big and fast and dramatic. Highlights are the crack of hockey- they give you such a perfect high, such a concise shot of everything you love in the game, that watching the entire thing just feels like a pointless endurance test. Only the playoffs make it worthwhile.

Every year since I came to this country, I’ve sworn to watch all the games, just like I used to, and every year I’ve failed. Work builds up and social opportunities arise and the local hockey season starts and eventually the backlog of unwatched Canadiens matches seems like a trackless tundra, eight extra hours I’m never going to have, and I give up.

For now, I’m hanging in there- caught up with my watching if not with my posting- and I have hopes that I’ll last at least the rest of the year, if not the entirety of the season. The team is doing well, so at least the discipline isn’t punishing. I compensate for the lack of energy in the recordings by becoming more analytical- trying to trace particular players at length, counting chances, tracking Martin’s coaching habits. I’m getting smarter about the game, if not necessarily wiser. But every now and then, for half a second, some beautiful play leads to a beautiful goal and I forget where I am and let out a little yelp of glee, and… it sounds so small and singular, dying quickly in the damp air between me and the computer screen, a reminder of how alone I am in that moment. Fandom is not meant to be a solo run.


Jeff J said...

...I have hopes that I’ll last at least the rest of the year...

Sounds like a recipe for burnout. To assist you in achieving this goal, might I suggest an automated torrent downloader?

annie said...

I think you've put your finger on exactly why watching recorded games feels so awkward. Part of it, certainly, is the loss of possibility - there's no anything-could-happen, in recorded games, because it already has, and surely if something beyond belief, something truly brilliant or terrible had happened, you would have heard about it even avoiding the blogs - but it's also being alone, and knowing that when you're waiting for the goal review you aren't part of one single immense inhalation, hold, eventual sigh - you're just waiting. In live games there are not enough seconds in the minute, or minutes in the hour; in recorded games, there are too many. The huge brilliant fractal potential of the game is stripped away and you're left with the reality, the less than spectacular truth, which is a lot of back and forth, a lot of waiting behind the net, a lot of smothering the puck for a line change and a false start on the face-off.

Am I saying what you just said? I'm saying what you just said.

I do think that the internet and the ready availability contributes to, rather than staves off, that sense of isolation - my parents talk happily about their days watching 7-day-late Oilers games, tapes brought up on bush planes to the high north, along with the 7-day-late news and the concentrated orange juice. In some way, total isolation strengthened their love of their team, and the game. It became a concrete thing, a single copy on tape, which had to cross the country by truck and train, like a person or a tin of peaches; it only became real when they saw it. By the time I made it that far north there was an internet connection in the library, and by the next morning everyone had either seen the game or couldn't be bothered.

On the other hand, if you can find a way to watch live games half a world away - that's amazing, isn't it? I was flying home to Vancouver from Europe during the Winter Olympics, so when I started watching games they were at silent strange hours of the morning, and with every stop-over, they got closer and closer and realer and realer, until for the silver and gold medal games I was in the city - that was a kind of great feeling, like stepping out of a movie theatre into unexpected weather. And after losing a player to the KHL, I've become a seriously displaced fan of the Mytishchi Atlant - I can't get video, most of the time, so I read the live game reports instead, refresh refresh at 3 am and putting unfamiliar words through a translator. But knowing that an hour north of Moscow, there's 5,000 diehards in navy and yellow jumping up and down and shouting things I don't understand but fundamentally agree with? Is also a pretty good feeling.

Uh, yes! Hello! Excellent post, sorry for the long comment, I love your blog and I sometimes mean to say something, but then this happens and I go "well that is certainly three paragraphs of personal reminiscence"

junaid said...

oh, well done on the use of "habitus". an inspired choice. bravo.

E said...

jeff- what is this automated downloader of which you speak? our household definitely needs such a thing.

annie- no worries, personal reminiscence is part of what all this is about. we love the first-person-singular around these parts. and you're right, on the rare occasions you see a big game live, it can be doubly emotional on the other side of the planet. the gold medal game from last winter is one of those games i'll remember forever, not just because of result but because of the context i saw it in.

junaid- that's how you know my three years at the institute were not entirely wasted.

Jeff J said...

Sorry E - I have to confess that I don't do this myself. There are apps like TED (demo here) that make it a cinch to automate downloading popular TV shows. After spending multiple minutes on Google looking for a good source for NHL games, it appears that it might not be quite so easy with sports broadcasts. *If* your source is reliable and on a feed, it should be no problem as long as you can leave your computer on at home during the day.