Thursday, October 27, 2011

No Success Like Failure

Mick Jagger was right: you can’t always get what you want. For years now, all I’ve wanted is a football franchise that wasn’t weighed down by endless mounds of futility. All I’ve wanted is a front office that wasn’t constantly striving for mediocrity. All I’ve wanted is an owner that would toss his stubbornness and egotism aside for two freaking minutes, just long enough to realize that he needs to hire a general manager, a man proficient enough to avoid spinning his wheels for nearly two decades of agonizingly frustrating football. All I’ve wanted is a collection of players that weren’t defined by a select few goofballs and chowder heads in love with their own reflection. All I’ve wanted is a quarterback that was willing to stick with it through the thin times, that looked off receivers, played with more animated facial expressions than Simon Cowell and didn’t grab his ball and stomp home the first time someone gave him a rough time for sucking. All I want is some competence.

But if you try sometimes…

Don’t worry – I’m not overreacting. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that the Cincinnati Bengals are playoff bound, that Andy Dalton is the red-headed reincarnation of Jesus Christ, that A.J. Green should be fast-tracked to the Hall of Fame, and that if this team’s defense would have been stationed in Poland in the 1940s, WWII would have never happened. Those things would be ridiculous. I won’t even say that this year’s Bengals squad (which currently stands at 4-2) is really even that good. They’re probably just a lot better than anyone thought they would be (ditto for Dalton, Green, and the defense) and have been aided early on by an easy schedule. And I won’t say that the recent trade of Carson Palmer to the Oakland Raiders makes up for the infinite displays of ineptitude and stupidity by Mike Brown during almost 20 years at the helm. But it’s nice to change up the status quo. It’s nice to have a group of excited young players encouraged by early success. And it’s nice when Mike Brown finally gets something right.

I’d rather not discuss at great length how I feel about the whole Carson Palmer situation. In fact, I’ve made a concerted effort to avoid delving in to the whole ordeal…so I’ll just keep it short. Yes, I can completely understand why coming and working for the Brown regime everyday might drive a player away. And yeah, I can respect to a certain degree the idea that Carson felt his relationship with the team had played itself out in Cincinnati. And true, hearing Mike Brown lecture someone about commitment and responsibility is like the Jersey Shore cast teaching a calculus class. But it doesn’t make what Carson did ok. It doesn’t change the fact that he quit, walked away, and (quietly) whined about his current state of affairs. It doesn’t change the fact that he did sign a contract and did commit to the team for millions of dollars over the next few seasons. Brown warrants heaps of criticism for his track record, but to his credit, he’s taken that in full. Carson now deserves some, too. That’s why I was basically on Mike Brown’s side through this saga. If Palmer wanted to sit home and pout, fine. Go for it. We have a new quarterback. We have football. We have a team. You can have your fancy house in Southern California and a giant pacifier. You weren’t that good anymore anyways. No one suffers from you walking away except you. Stick to your guns Mike Brown. For once, be yourself.

Is that slightly childish on my part? Wouldn’t it be smarter to just get rid of a player we didn’t want and who wasn’t going to play for something that could help the team? Wasn’t this all a little too “cut off your nose to spite your face?” Yeah…but I didn’t care. I catch enough flack for being a Bengals fans from the rest of the world. I don’t need it from the guys on my (yeah, I said it – my) team. But then something happened. Raiders QB Jason Campbell busted up his shoulder, just as Oakland was shaping into a pretty good squad. Chalking up the season to an injured quarterback wasn’t an option, so the Raiders grew antsy, hasty, maybe even certifiably insane. They called up the Bengals – who remained adamant about not trading Carson – and offered a first round pick and a second-round-could-be-first-round pick for the same guy that slings interceptions like a baker flinging pastry. Mike Brown may be dumb, but no one is dumb enough to turn that down.

It was a weird feeling. I’ve certainly agreed with a few Mike Brown decisions over the years (signings or draft picks) and have even been relatively happy with him at times (’05, ’09), but I’ve never been simultaneously as shocked and proud as I was with the Carson trade. I was in Brown’s corner to begin with, but when word started trickling out what he was reportedly swindling from Oakland, I had two thoughts, in this order: first, I thought someone was holding a gun to his head and this was his way of signaling us; then, when things became too definite to be ransom-driven, I actually – for a few fleeting moments – wondered if Brown was some evil genius. I know, but it’s true. How had he done it? Did the Raiders have no game tape on Palmer after 2006? Was Carson holding a gun to their head? Mike Brown robbed the Raiders like he was Jesse James on a train car. I was confounded, flabbergasted, flummoxed, and dumbfounded. I still am.

On the surface, it was a win-win. Carson got the trade he had been pining for, and even to a west coast team like we all knew he wanted. The Bengals (and more importantly, Brown) made the fans happy by unloading Palmer’s distraction riddled persona, fat/stagnant contract and carcass of a throwing arm (all of which were providing no benefit to the team) for two top-end draft picks (both of which afford endless potential to benefit the team). Hell, even the Raiders and their fans were excited, making it a win-win-win…at least for a few days.

Which leads us to Sunday, October 23, 2011 – a day I will forever remember quite fondly. Palmer didn’t arrive in Oakland for practice until mid-week, forcing the Raiders to start Kyle Boller in Week 7. But after Boller turned in what could only be described as a pathetic half of football, Palmer got tossed in during the third quarter, facing a 21-point deficit. Now I would never wish any harmful or malicious ill will on another human being (or at least this is what I tell myself), and I would never want Palmer to suffer another terrible injury or somehow hinder his chances of living a successful life away from the game. And yet, I wanted nothing more than for him to crash and burn. I wanted everyone else to see what I had seen, what other Bengals fans had seen for the past few years, even if it took us all a while to admit it. I actually wanted people to realize and praise Mike Brown for what a brilliant move he had made. And you thought I was being childish before?

Lo and behold, some otherworldly force out there felt the same way I did. Carson Palmer threw three interceptions in the second half, only one of which wasn’t a completely vomit-inducing pass. The first – a quintessential Carson Palmer pick-six – was telegraphed so blatantly that everyone in the universe saw it coming, except Palmer himself. My granny could have nabbed it and taken it to paydirt. And as Carson was jogging after a wide-eyed defender and his clear path to the endzone, I couldn’t contain the grin that spread across my face. It stayed there the rest of the game, and I have a feeling that Mike Brown was feeling the exact same way. Which is good. For once, he deserved a moment like that. I hope it’s not the last.

When it comes to the Bengals, I’ve wanted a lot of different things for a long, long time. There have been fleeting instances here and there, and at least for right now, I’m stuck right in the middle of one yet again. I have no clue how long it will last this time around, but I’d be a fool to start worrying about that. Instead, I’ll embrace the fact that I finally got what I want, if only for a moment.

Carson got what he wanted, too, and I hope it’s everything he dreamed it would be. So far, it sure as heck has been for me.

Thanks for reading

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Only God Can Make a Tree

The air is still, somehow eerie and calming all at the same time, the sky a soft shade of indigo that I’ve never noticed it to be before. The sun is far enough submerged that nothing else is illuminated, just outlines and shadows waiting to be exposed. Leaves rustle and drop from the trees as my eyes adjust to the early morning dawn. I am as removed from modern society as I can ever remember being in my lifetime.

I was attending a camping trip for my Recreation 100 class – Wilderness Living Skills. The course required very little effort or attendance, save for a weekend camping trip, Friday through Sunday. I was immediately hooked. The appeal of minimal effort in an elective course and a few days outside in the midst of fall felt like a fair exchange for college credit. What I didn’t originally realize, of course, was how intense this “camping trip” would actually be.

First of all, it was a hiking trip, not a camping trip. “Camping” was what occurred when it got too dark to hike, or we grew tired of carrying a 50 lb backpack through the wilderness. And it wasn’t exactly “make s’mores and chug PBRs with your buds before dozing off in your car” camping. It was “pitch a tent and crap in a hole in the ground” camping. No toilets. No trash cans. No iPods or cell phones or bags of Doritos. I’m not entirely sure what it means to be roughing it, but if this wasn’t it, it was certainly as close as I have ever been. I assume it was very similar to how the Kardashians react when they lose phone service while driving through a tunnel.

From a distance, the experience overall wasn’t really too shabby. I like being outdoors. I enjoy the physical challenge of hiking and camping and self-preservation. Nature is cool, bro. But I’d take 24 hours of lounging and college football over a 10 mile hike up and down muddy hills in rain soaked clothes every freaking day of the week. No, that doesn’t exactly make me a thrill seeking outdoorsman, and it won’t get my face on a roll of paper towels. But when you have a 55 inch HD TV and indoor plumbing, it also doesn’t make you a fool.

It would be wrong, however, to claim that I gained nothing from the experience. I suppose it was more aggravating than entertaining, more laborious than educational. But under the circumstances, it allowed for plenty of contemplative thought – which, to be honest, is not something I generally spend much time on. (I figure that’s pretty obvious by now.)

I thought about what the future might possibly hold for me, and how I want to approach it. I thought about talent and direction and fate. I thought about how much control I have over my outlook, and whether that control is a good thing. I thought about letting that control go, be it out of carefree conviction or a spiritual leap of faith. I thought about Justin Timberlake, and about staying your lane.

I’m not sure why Justin Timberlake was the most readily available pop culture reference point, but it resonated most with me somewhere out in the forests of Appalachian Ohio. It’s probably because Timberlake is everywhere, but only when he wants to be. And it’s probably also because Timberlake gave up on the one thing that he knew would bring him steady fame, income, and deification: music. For whatever reason, Timberlake decided he’d rather be an actor, using his talents to portray fictitious suave and charming characters that every girl fawns over, as opposed to a personified suave and charming characterization that every girl fawns over.

Timberlake is admittedly a bit of a different breed, as he clearly possesses enough charisma and magnetism to simply trade one career of fame and fortune for another…but the principle remains the same. His future success was more guaranteed as a singer/entertainer, if only because history had proven how successful that lifestyle could be for him. So far, I wouldn’t say that he has failed as an actor (by any means), and he clearly will have the opportunities to get better. But did he make the best decision? Should he really have crossed platforms? Will it eventually come back to haunt him after a string of bombed films and failed attempt at a comeback album?

For whatever reason, being outdoors – specifically in the woods during the fall – always reminds me of Robert Frost’s poem, The Road Not Taken. It most certainly has something to do with the imagery, but it could also be my overall lack of poetry knowledge, as well as the fact that my 8th grade English teacher required us to memorize the whole thing. The message of the poem is all about a man faced with a decision, and ultimately deciding to take “the road less traveled by,” which in the end is what makes all the difference in his life. I’m not entirely sure how I initially interpreted this poem (or if I even did at all), but I eventually came to the realization that he chooses the road less traveled by – partly to challenge himself, partly to enrich his life – but also because it’s the path he wanted to choose. The other might have offered an easier road or a more definite outcome, but deep down, the uncharted territory drew the narrator in. Uncertainty, anxiety, potential failure – none of it was strong enough to deter him. He wanted to choose the less ventured road; had to choose the less ventured road. It wasn’t the ending that appealed to him. It was the journey of getting there. Or at least that’s how I’ve come to interpret it. And oddly enough, I think Justin Timberlake probably feels the same way.

Standing in that clearing, the frost of the morning air blanketing me as the sky slowly transforms from smooth indigo to uneven amber, these are things I’m thinking about. And as we begin the last portion of our hike, back to normalcy and civilization, I suddenly come to this enlightening realization about which lane to stay in, which path to travel. Walking amongst the silence and serenity of God’s great creation, I recognize that I’m surrounded by what could very well be the purest and most beautiful scene I’ve ever personally laid eyes on…and I hate it. I absolutely hate it.

The sound of car wheels on pavement as we approach our destination is empowering. I want nothing more than to shower, drink Mountain Dew, and regain cell service on my Blackberry. I can’t wait to check Twitter and update my Fantasy Football roster. I want to eat something that would never be able to survive in a drenched canvass backpack for three days. And most importantly, I want to start moving forward on my own path. I want to choose my own course of action. I want to do what Justin Timberlake would do.

I’m completely unsure where this path ends. I’m not even assured of where it actually begins. But the rest will figure itself out; the revelation will eventually be seen. For now, I know merely what direction to turn, a slight chill on my breath the only indication as to where I am going.

Thanks for reading