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  • Embracing the Complications
  • Laura Julier

I’m sitting in Michigan watching videos I took last month at the homecoming football game of Humboldt State University in Arcata, CA, where my nephew studies marine biology and plays defensive end. There’s a football game here in East Lansing today, and all I can think—as I hear the furnace kick in and watch the pouring icy rain hit the storm windows—is that absolutely nothing could get me to spend the morning tailgating, and the afternoon sitting in the stands over at the 75,000-seat stadium in this town. But there will be thousands and thousands of Spartan fans huddling, roaring, and bleeding green and white, as they like to say.

Football at Humboldt State is of a different sort. Built by the WPA, the 6,000-seat Redwood Bowl sits between the Pacific Ocean and the giant redwood forests. Games are played at night, and usually just after halftime, a thick fog rolls in from the ocean, slithering over the redwoods that surround it, creeping over the field, players, and fans. What I love about the HSU Lumberjacks, in addition to the redwood forests all around campus, is that they have a sense of humor about themselves even as, at the same time, they take what they do seriously. It was a tense and dramatic game that weekend I was there. The drill team was out in full force: six men dressed in red-and-black checkered flannel shirts, khakis and yellow suspenders, work boots, and chain saws. Every touchdown was greeted with chainsaws in the air, running full blast in the end zone. The 20-person marching band doesn’t wear uniforms; they wear a yellow T-shirt over . . . whatever . . . and a yellow safety hardhat. Seriously. Take a look: [End Page v]

Why am I writing about the Lumberjacks? When I was there in Arcata at the homecoming tailgate party, which filled a medium-sized parking lot, all I could do was think about the dozens of parking lots, fields, grassy curbsides, and any other available acreage on Michigan State’s campus that are taken over by tailgaters at home football games. HSU’s version seemed laughable. When I described HSU’s version of a marching band, Spartan fans thought it quaint. Those reactions are entirely predictable and glib. Yet I’ve been turning in my mind these various images, fingering them like wave-washed stones.

A Big Ten football game is full of drama and spectacle, for certain. It plays well on television. When you’re in the midst of it—either in the stands or among the tailgaters—it can lead some people to feel that they’re part of something big and vitally important. Something so important, in fact, that it can warp judgment and priorities and normal habits of care, as we have been finding out. Admittedly, it can also make those of us who hunger for solitude, or are a bit apprehensive of the potential power of the crowd, feel it’s the last place on earth we’d want to be. But there’s no denying its scale, or that it veers towards a grand narrative and easily evokes the genre of epic, forced or not.

Mostly the effort to invoke the epic is in fact forced, reduced to its simplest formula. The other night, while his parent was trying to update me on the last Star Wars movie before the new one appears in theaters, a 15-year-old friend of mine interrupted to explain why he was so disappointed in The Force Awakens. His voice got louder and more agitated as he described the inconsistent plot points, but then moved to his main argument: the filmmakers had caved to commercial greed, relying on a safe and proven formula: “Empire, bad; rebels, good. Those in power, always evil; small band of underdogs, always righteous and always win.” He had wanted them to resist this formula, to explore the moral and interpersonal complexities of the rebels, to explore how new circumstances might reveal other aspects of these characters.

Listening to him, I thought of the...


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