Rutherwood; or, Life on the Run (10/19) — Chapter Ten, Camellia (3/5)

LAST SUNDAY MORNING, only one blossom on our neighbor’s large camellia bush shone in the sun.


BOONE, N.C. (Feb. 5, 2020) – Five years ago when Appalachian State University won its first Camellia Bowl—it won two in a row—life in Boone changed for good. That was the start of a run that hasn’t ended yet, with our Mountaineers having won five straight post-season bowls since moving up to college football’s top division. They’ve also won the Dollar General Bowl and two New Orleans Bowls.

What difference do bowl wins make? Well, when App State football is at home on Saturdays in the late summer and early autumn—and on the occasional Thursday night—the place to be is Kidd Brewer Stadium, or in the vicinity, at least. The sights, sounds and smells of tailgating fill the senses and the air on Rivers Street and Stadium Drive, even off campus on Howard and King streets downtown.

Everyone who is someone in Boone is tailgating somewhere close to campus sometime before the big football game. Those of us who aren’t anyone, really, stay home and watch on TV or listen on the radio.

THE APP STATE MOUNTAINEERS have claimed this trophy twice in the past five years by winning two straight Camellia Bowls in Montgomery, Ala.

Of course, the tailgating on King Street—the town’s main thoroughfare—is likely to be the less festive sort, involving vehicles of all colors, shapes and sizes creeping inch by inch from one traffic light to the next through the gauntlet of restaurants, stores, offices and other institutions that make this tiny college town so much more special than the larger cities across the state from which ASU’s student body hails.

More special? Really? Than Charlotte, where the NFL’s Carolina Panthers and NBA’s Hornets play half their games? Than Raleigh, where the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes share digs with N.C. State Wolfpack hoops of the hallowed Atlantic Coast Conference? With anything Chapel Hill? With anything Durham? Mountaineer, please! But, yes, Boone is more special than those places because this is God’s Country, especially in the summertime when everyone else east of the Eastern Continental Divide is sweltering.

And because our boys win bowl games in December. In Southern cities with milder winters. Our bowl games don’t have to be on New Year’s Day … for now. No, really. We’re satisfied … we are … for now.

Actually, that’s what bothers me—the for now part. Isn’t that how everything works? Aren’t we usually proud when we set ourselves a goal and then make progress toward reaching it? Then aren’t we ecstatic when we finally accomplish whatever objective we’d set? But doesn’t our satisfaction eventually wane even if we experience continued success without further growth? Would we be just as happy with five straight Camellia Bowl wins, even though Montgomery has become a charming New South city? What if we never make a bowl outside Alabama or Louisiana, even though NOLA does have the Superdome?

But this essay isn’t about App State Mountaineer football. No, not really. It’s about expectations, goals, success and failure. It’s about what we look forward to in our ordinary lives, what is most important to us when we aren’t at work making our livings, and what makes us the happiest with ourselves and with all the people most important to us. This essay is about the joy we’d like to experience every day.

Joy. What exactly does that word mean? Extreme pleasure? Happiness? Something more? Was it King Solomon, the wisest man, who said, “A joyful heart is good medicine, / But a broken spirit dries up the bones” (Proverbs 17:22, NASB)? So is the opposite of a joyful heart, a broken spirit? Hmm. Maybe so. And what, may I ask, exists in that nether-region between a joyful heart and a broken spirit? That four-o’clock-in-the-afternoon feeling I get when it’s a bit too late for more caffeine but too early for alcohol? (Except at the football game, right?) That’s what Walker Percy, one of my favorite writers, called it.

Why is so much of our joy now connected with sports? Not just bowl games. Not just championships. Not even the greatest, most commercial, most joyful championship bowl game of them all, the Super Bowl. Why do we care so much about teams of athletes—men or women—who vie for championships, or even about individuals who strive to be the very best in their individual sports? And not just personal joy, but collective joy on a cultural level, as we tailgate our way through life from one party, one game, one diversion to the next. Has organized sport replaced organized religion as the “opiate of the masses” in America? Or the dopamine?

Yeah, I know, that’s an “Are Catholic priests and TV evangelists still abusing altar boys and procuring prostitutes?” kind of question. That’s OK. I’ve been accused of asking these “gotcha” questions before.

Just look at the big news stories of the past week—President Donald Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi went head to head in this week’s SmackDown: Raw Impeachment; China’s new coronavirus got more headlines than the deadly flu near-epidemic here at home; fresh-faced QB Patrick Mahomes led his Kansas City Chiefs from behind to defeat the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LIV; middle-aged but sexy singers Shakira and Jennifer Lopez shook their beauties at halftime; Democrats in Iowa took longer than the 24-hour news cycle allowed to count caucus delegates; and Kobe Bryant was still dead.

(Do rest in peace, Kobe and daughter, along with the seven other persons whose lost lives mean just as much to someone as yours do, though not to as many folks as an NBA legend may, not even to as many as an old college baseball coach might.)

But maybe it isn’t just sports. Maybe it’s entertainment that has replaced religion. Maybe everything we watch and do now has to be entertaining, even at school, even at work, even at church (if we still bother going to church), not just at home and when we’re out on the town. What we stare at on all of our screens has to be entertaining. The information we consume—even the gruesome stuff—has to be entertaining. The news—even the worst headline or meme that we can’t avoid—has to be entertaining. Here we are now. Entertain us.

Isn’t that what Kurt Cobain was singing not long before his 1994 suicide? Smells like the same old spirit 25 years later, huh? With 2020 vision.

So what do we do now? Power off our smart phones? Turn off our widescreen TVs? Sit at home and eat fuzzy worms because we can’t bear that nobody’s Liking us? Well … now that you mention it … maybe that wouldn’t be the worst thing to do now and then—to turn down the world’s volume and then quietly consider our place in the universe, maybe as we walk along a shady path or sandy beach, maybe as we lie under and mull over stars by night and clouds by day. And maybe now and then would come around more often, sooner and later. Maybe that’s the four-in-the-afternoon (and morning) feeling I’m seeking.

As hard as it is to practice what I preach, that’s the God’s honest truth—not just on football game days up here in Boone, God’s Country, but down in the valley of the mountain’s shadow in Morganton, even when the Panthers aren’t playing at home. I try not to fear evil or the deadly coronavirus, but my phone and my TV, they discomfit me (iPsalm 23, ESPN). So what to do, what to do? I am hooked on dopamine, virtually.

I sure don’t see any answers on the horizon, as if I ever look that way. In the meantime, I’ll just have to watch Kobe’s memorial service—it’ll be streaming on all the right channels, won’t it?—and wait for Opening Day.