Month: May 2014

Cottonwood seeds, my dad, and me: 20 years and a day after a funeral

I wasn’t going to write a post about the 20 year anniversary of my dad’s death. That was on May 15th. I thought I might write about the 20 year anniversary of his funeral, which was on May 19th. Reflecting on the funeral ritual and tying it to my own identity development, I thought, might be reasonable sociology content for whatever my blog is becoming. I also thought it would probably be more personal and self indulgent than I feel like being right now, so I was going to let the anniversaries pass without comment.

Then, this morning, May 20th, I was driving to our district high school to vote on the school budget. I was imagining some snarky tweets like “I vote yes in school budget elections just to piss off the ‘cut my taxes’ crowd.” I was mentally crafting some pretty terrific tweets as I turned on to Grand Avenue and headed for the school when the windblown cottonwood seeds engulfed my car and entered the open windows.

My dad used to say, as best I remember the saying*, “when the cottonwood’s a-flying, the fish are a bitin’.” I think he fished less than he would have liked, but I actually have a good number of fishing related memories of time we spent together. I never much liked fishing or fish, and today fishing is about the last thing I’d do to pass the time. Nonetheless, every spring when the cottonwood flies I think of that saying, I think of my dad, and I think of his funeral procession.

It was on the ride from the church to the cemetery that the saying really got burned into my memories of my father. I was riding with my family in an SUV behind the hearse (did we call them SUVs, then?), we were heading north on Janesville’s Ringold street, approaching my elementary school, and for some reason the ‘Snow’ song “Informer” is strongly associated with this memory (was it on the radio? No way, right?). And of course the cottonwood was flying. My mom quoted my father’s fishing wisdom, ensuring that every spring since, at unexpected moments, memories of my dad would enter my thoughts through an open car window.

I held on to a few of my father’s things after he died: a fishing knife I lost sometime during college; a business card I’ve misplaced somewhere in my messy home office; and a jeweler’s loupe I pull out occasionally for no real reason. These material things symbolize memories of my dad, sure, but they do more than that too. They keep the relationship with my dad alive. That’s why I kept them and why I occasionally spend time with them. But it’s the cottonwood seeds more than anything else that makes my dad feel present. I’m not religious and I don’t believe in afterlife or souls. I do, however, believe in memory and emotion, and in their fundamental place in identity. The memories and emotions the cottonwood seeds trigger are a function of that relationship with my dad, which continues to structure who I am 20 years later.


*the accuracy of the memory is less important than the existence of the memory


Producing Fun: How they are Saving the Syracuse Chiefs

 Take Me Out to the Ball Game

I’m a Syracuse Chiefs fan. If you follow me on Twitter, you know that, and probably would like me tweet a bit less about it. I’ve tweeted lots of photos and comments about games this year, made fun of the Chiefs on my timeline, and last year I waged a quixotic battle trying to get the ‘Chiefs’ to change their name to the Salt Potatoes (which I still think would be a better name – see the Montgomery Biscuits). Part of the reason I do this is because even a lot of baseball fans think minor league ball is a weak substitute for the big league game, and not much fun. But they are wrong, and I want to share the fun that can be had at NBT Bank Stadium. A lot of the fun is a result of the social experiences surrounding the game, so you don’t even need to be a baseball lover to enjoy an evening at the ballpark.



Le Moyne Lacrosse: Interaction Ritual and the Sacred

Yesterday afternoon I attended the Le Moyne versus Merrimack lacrosse playoff game that took place at Le Moyne’s Ted Grant Field. Unfortunately for Le Moyne, we lost a close contest in the last 5 seconds. The game, however, was very exciting, and significantly more enjoyable than the one other lacrosse game I’d previously attended 5 years ago or so. As I watched the game I was thinking about what made the experience more exciting this time around.

In general, I find lacrosse quite boring, and the main reason I went was because I wanted to support a few lacrosse players I’ve had in classes this semester. I know my boredom is primarily because I really don’t understand what I’m looking at. To me, it appears to be a bunch of folks running around, beating each other up, and throwing a ball past a goaltender with little to no reasonable chance to make a save (even though the Merrimack tender did seem to make a lot of stops today). As a baseball fan, however, I suspect that most folks who say baseball is boring really don’t know the game very well. Once you know what’s ‘really’ happening out there, you see a lot more going on during those times it appears most of the players are just standing around. I have to assume, therefore, that I just don’t have the stock of lacrosse knowledge to make sense of, and therefore enjoy, lacrosse. This was still true today. I watched nearly the whole game, and at any point I would have been hard-pressed to explain what I was watching. Clearly, it wasn’t my knowledge of the game that made it more fun today.

Fortunately, as I wandered over to the fence to watch the game, I ran into some colleagues who had done the same. They aren’t the colleagues I hang out with the most often, but I know each of them is a sports fan. There were also a few other faculty and college staff, including our president, who joined us for a while as the game progressed. A good crowd of students, only a few of whom I recognized, were also gathered around the fence and in the stands. I can’t say if it was a more well attended game than normal, but it was a playoff game, so probably there were others like me who came just to check it out. I was watching the game with folks who were chatting with one another about the game and some other college issues, and we were all part of the larger crowd focused on the game.

So, can any of these details help explain why I had a more enjoyable time at the game than I expected. First, I did have a connection to a few of the players. I know these students off the field after spending a semester with them in class. So, they weren’t just numbers and face masks, but rather people I’ve cultivated relationships with. I wanted them to win because I knew they’d be proud and happy, and I’d experience just a little bit of those positive emotions if they did.

The folks I was with certainly added to the fun of the experience. Part of that was because I could draw on their stock of lacrosse knowledge to resolve the regular confusion I experienced about the game play. Why did the game stop? Because he stepped across that line. Why was that a penalty when otherwise hitting with sticks seems perfectly legitimate in this game? Because he hit him in the wrong place. Oh, ok. Nobody likes being confused, and I was less confused than if I’d been there on my own. But, it was more than just lacrosse talk making the game fun. We also commiserated about avoiding grading, congratulated one another on accomplishments, and learned more about colleagues we only knew a little. We were engaging in friendship rituals, and it made us happy, despite the fact the game really was never going Le Moyne’s way.

Beyond our group, the larger crowd, not all of whom were cheering for Le Moyne, helped produce my enjoyment too. The excitement, and even the dread, were contagious. It’s fun to be around people having fun, and sharing an emotional connection, even a relatively negative emotion, with a large, loud crowd can help produce a sense of community with people you’ll never get to know personally. This definitely happened, and it’s not a stretch to say that at Le Moyne the lacrosse field is sacred ground. We have a pretty good team, after all, and the men’s lacrosse team in particular has brought a lot of positive attention to the school. That was the background of these sports rituals we enacted, the school’s reputation beyond campus and shared spirit of supporting the team.

I’d say that I enjoyed the game mostly because of all the positive emotional energy that surrounded us, even in defeat. It was a few hours of solidarity and fun, shared with some friends, some acquaintances, and a lot of strangers.