The sun and blue sky lie about just how damn cold Ohio is right now. We will use this as a metaphor, a symbol, because we might as well. We will use this because such contradictions are apt for Joel. He awaits this interview with something akin to Tourrette’s–constant moving, feet bouncing up and down, an inability to stop touching his beard, to not use his hands when answering questions. He often stops talking during the middle of answers to shake his head. When asked about this particular tic, he says he can’t stop himself from finding ways to criticise his responses, which means he can never give a real response because all of his responses have been vetted through some sort of internal-as-external-voices process. The world, it seems, is always just about to break his words into atoms.
Even by appearances, he’s a bit of a contradiction: he wears v-neck sweaters and ties with Red Wing workboots to his job in insurance; his idea of comfort wear is a collared shirt, tie, and a zip-up hoodie. He swears by his boots. He can’t seem to decide if he wants to own a Ford Focus or F350. He fantasises about moving off the grid in Montana or moving to the beach on the Gulf Coast or moving to the desert in Arizona or moving to the perfect weather of San Diego or moving to Dubai because doing so would be, to him, some sort of defiant rebellion about what he’s not supposed to do. He makes no sense, and he’s all too aware of it. The awareness haunts him; it’s why he can’t answer questions without stopping–a crippling self-consciousness, not about what he does, but about what he says and how it could be construed and how it seems that ideas evolve in the middle of sentences. The world, he knows, never stops.
At one point in your life, all you wanted to do was be a quarterback, yet you never actually played organised football. Do you consider this a rather symbolic explanation of who you are?
I mean, I can’t really say no to that, can I? When I was young, I played football all of the time; when we lived in Pittsburgh, I would use a balled-up sock in the living room and throw passes to myself. When we moved, I would play in the front yard, being both teams, driving up and down the yard, throwing passes to myself, running hand-offs, narrating the action. I loved football. I would make my dad run patterns in the back yard. I wanted to be John Elway. I begged for these football uniform things that came with cheap helmets and cheap shoulder pads; I think they were in the JCPenney’s catalouge. My obsession with cleats and mouthpieces–had to have the same one as Bo Jackson–was a bit ridiculous. I remember one time in winter, I was walking somewhere with my mom and I wore a pair of my football pants; I kept telling her I had to get used to the cold just in case Green Bay drafted me. It was a serious consideration in my head.
Sports was easy when we lived there. I was a superior athlete, and I knew that. Like, the day of Little League tryouts, my dad walked me up to the field and on the way he basically told me not to be arrogant just because, even at 9, I was better at baseball than most of the older kids. I had been participating in Little League practices since I was 7, two years before I would even be allowed to be on the team. I never thought about it, but I still knew it, you know? But, there wasn’t a youth football league there. It was all backyard football. After my parents divorced and we moved back down to the Pittsburgh area, there was a youth football league, but I was no longer a superior athlete–I was a typical athlete, and suddenly football was scary–kids were bigger, I could get hurt, maybe I’m not good enough, etc. And I had no drive to challenge that fear and actually find out for myself. I chose to play youth basketball instead.
In the end, though, you quit on basketball as well. The only sports you never quit on were baseball and golf.
I guess it really depends on your version of quit. I didn’t quit playing baseball until I got too old to participate in proper leagues, but, I mean, I didn’t try to play in college or anything. And golf, I’ve continued to play to this day. I really like golf. But in both cases, I have let myself be content with my inherent abilities. Like, I was awesome at baseball, just awesome. But as I got older, I didn’t continue to be awesome because I never worked at it, I was just enough better than others to be considered ‘good.’ I didn’t do drills, train myself, or try to become better. I just allowed myself to be as good as I was inherently. That’s sad. It’s the same thing for golf–I never pushed my parents for actual lessons, I never tried to be any better than I was the first day I picked up a club. I got better over time just from playing, but that’s more to do with the benefits of just playing more often, not because I pushed myself.
Golf is a game I understand, psychologically, as in, it suits me. It’s a loner sport within the socialisation of competition. There’s power, there’s finesse, there’s mental adjustments to the course, the weather, the distance, etc. It involves walking, which, weirdly, I find to be soothing. But I’ve never wanted to be anything other than ‘decent enough.’ Or, rather, I’ve always wanted to be great, but not enough to actually try at it. I am, to this day, convinced that I could be great at golf, or that I could have been great at golf–that I could have played college, gone second-tier pro or something, with the ‘right training,’ that I should have convinced my parents to spend money on training and travelling and the sports pyschologists or whatever. It’s all rather naive of me, but I still think I could do that if I invested the necessary time and money. It’s like having a ghost follow you around everywhere: there’s this person who could have existed and I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about that ghost.
And the real sad part is, like, I gave up on organised basketball after 8th grade, but I still played all the time. It’s probably been my favourite sport to play. I particpated in intermurals in college every single semester and I loved it. And I was damn good, but I always had excuses for why I had quit in 8th grade–I wasn’t tall enough, I wasn’t part of the ‘basketball crew,’ I wasn’t going to given a fair shot, blahblahblah. Basically, I was a chickenshit, scared of what it meant to be challenged by other damn good players, and I could not handle the idea that I might fail. It was way easier to make jokes about practice getting in the way of my pot smoking than it was to risk failure. And so the ghosts just keep queuing up behind me. And I can’t stop myself from thinking that my views on my skills in any sport are way over-inflated, that I’m pulling an Al Bundy, creating grandious ghosts as some sort of bizarre excuse for that fear.
We pause. Joel almost looks like he’s smiling, like the only way to respond to himself is to find a way to laugh about it. The twitching continues, the legs move even faster and then suddenly stop. He stares down at his hands and just waits in silence. It’s hard to know how much of this is true; qualifying ‘good’ when it comes to sports is a difficult process. He says he remembers his dad saying he was ‘scary good’ at being a quarterback, but that’s not from an objective observer. He doesn’t have stats or figures or championships to back up any claim, and the way he stares at his hands almost looks like he thinks they, somehow, hold that objective truth.
The real truth is, sports aren’t an objective truth–the only clear truth in any game is winner and loser, and, yet, even that gets argued sometimes. We hear things about who should have won or a team should have lost a game because of mistakes, yet somehow didn’t. It’s as though sports cannot have any defintion, that the act of participating in a game means you have elected to join a fluid universe where subjective views will determine who you are. And that by moving in the fluidity, you will never be able to assess yourself because the only opinions that matter are other people’s.