The scene was surreal. No, not that one, of the bombs going off at the finish line of last Monday’s Boston Marathon, or of a whole city shut in to catch one lonely, badly injured boy. Scenes of explosions in public spaces are quite real, and quite common these days, if not so much on American soil. And scenes of man hunts can be seen every night on crime TV.
The surreal scene of which I refer took place Saturday (April 20, 2013) in what has been called “the loveliest village on the plains”, Auburn, Alabama, a small town that was swelled to the bursting point with rabid members of the Auburn University “family” there to attend a game the university’s football team was bound to win, since it was a scrimmage game, with itself. They were there for that, and to roll the oak trees at Toomer’s Corner, just outside the stadium—an Auburn tradition after football victories (assured in this instance, along with a defeat) begun sometime after the growth of the Toomer’s Corner oaks to a height sufficient to make them an object worthy of the soft vandalism of throwing toilet paper rolls into their branches. The “tradition” is said to have started in the early eighties, about the time Auburn football began its recovery from a decades-long slump, and finally mustered a team regularly capable of beating its arch-rival, Alabama. Nobody really knows how or why it started, or whoever knows isn’t telling. It seems a curious thing to do as an act of celebration, something akin to a street riot in LA after the Lakers win an NBA championship (LA authorities are surely relieved that there’s not much chance of that this year). As throwing toilet paper into publicly-owned trees is an act of vandalism, it was no doubt discouraged in its first few episodes. But over 80,000 people attended the scrimmage game Saturday, and presumably almost as many, the now ritualized act of vandalism. It was to be the last rolling of the Toomer’s Corner oaks, as the trees are dying, either because of having been recently poisoned by a rabid fan of Auburn rival, Alabama, or because they are live oaks, and are well north of their customary range, or simply because of old age; nobody’s really sure on that score, either. Trees get old and die. Oak trees live about a hundred years, maybe a hundred fifty, if conditions are ideal. And the condition of being on the busiest corner of a town, even a very small town as is Auburn, Alabama (except for football weekends), and routinely being draped in toilet paper, which then must be cleaned (in the past, with high-pressure hoses), is not an ideal condition for any sort of tree, not even a sturdy, long-lived tree like an oak.
Imagine, eighty thousand or so orange and blue bedecked fans streaming into a stadium to watch what amounts to the last practice of a college football team’s spring training, toilet paper rolls in hand for the post-game festivities. It’s really hard not to look silly in a bright orange shirt strolling down the street holding a roll of toilet paper. A professor or student from some benighted third world country visiting Auburn for the first time might have wondered if the town lacked toilet facilities. And why there were so many people dressed like clowns. It was all very ridiculous, extravagantly so.
Saturday’s tree decorating was the “Last Roll” as the T-shirts the carney barkers sold told it. I’d say that’s a good thing if the collective infantilism necessary to keep alive a tradition which amounts to a ritualized childish prank goes with it. The tradition stands as a testament to the idea that people will do in a crowd that which is far too foolish to ever consider doing alone. But there was no official announcement decreeing the end of bright orange shirts, pants and shoes. So that tradition will likely continue, sans the toilet paper rolls. At least the faithful won’t look like clowns looking for a bathroom. They’ll just look like clowns.
I was in town to visit my son, who is finishing up his first year at the university. Yes, they have a university with real classes to go along with the football team. The social group he has adopted, and that has accepted him with welcoming arms, all 95 pounds of post bone marrow transplant stud that he is, was hosting parent’s weekend. I thought at first, when he seemed to be spending every waking moment outside of class at his new social group, that my son might have joined a cult. (But not the tree-rolling, football-scrimmage-viewing, orange-clad cult; he’s thankfully not much into any of that.) I found out this weekend that the Auburn Christian Fellowship is no cult. It is simply a social group—a place for college kids to gather and socialize in Christian fellowship, meaning without the peer pressure to drink, smoke, do drugs, or have premarital sex—the type pressure that routinely comes with membership in fraternities and sororities of the Greek system. Kids involved with ACF get a social life, but without the intense pressure to conform, and the cliquish pigeon-holing social tendencies that make college for the Greeks into something of a craven extension of high school. And they can have at least some expectation of being treated in accordance with Christ’s teachings, and won’t be ostracized for trying to actually live a bit as He taught. It seems like a very good place for college kids to hang out, and a keen fit for my son. I’m not myself Christian, in that I don’t believe in the special divinity of Christ (I might be best characterized as Gnostic Christian, or perhaps as Deist), but I am Christian in that I believe there is no better way to live one’s life than in the manner Christ lived and taught.
I’m rather proud of my son’s choice, though I would never tell him as much. I used to cringe when I’d do something good and my dad would tell me how proud he was of me—it made me want to choke the life out of him, screaming that I wasn’t doing it for him, and that I didn’t care that he was proud. I did what I did for me, and I want my son to do the same for himself. I don’t want my son to think he’s living his life to please me. The person he has to please is himself. He answers not to me, but to the man in the mirror. He calls the power to whom he answers “God”, but I know that God and the man in the mirror are always pretty much the same. I’m glad my son seems happy and is thriving in his new environment. It was just a little extra gravy on the potatoes of my life that he adamantly refused to attend the game or the tree-rolling ceremony, and generally avoids that sort of silliness. The kid is mature, well beyond his years.
There’s more to college than drinking, drugs and illicit sex, or perhaps there is less to it than that, and if that’s the purpose behind one’s attendance, one ought instead to just stay home. I was in a social fraternity during my first year of college. It was a dreadfully banal waste of time. I’m glad my son has no interest in joining one. And I hope he never becomes such a fanatic for Auburn football that he voluntarily walks around campus in a ridiculous bright orange get up, carrying a roll of toilet paper in his hand (though the opportunity for carrying toilet paper around without garnering unwelcome notice from people other than aliens to Auburn’s culture should have, hopefully, ended Saturday).
It’s hard for me to see how a grown man can claim that Auburn University sufficiently educated him, when he sees no problem with making an outlandish fool of himself over its football team. (I don’t mean to single out Auburn grads for derision. I am a graduate of the University of Alabama, and would say the same of its alumni who similarly act so silly). But there are very few educated, psychically adult humans in the US about now. Acting fanatical and stupid over sports teams and sporting events has come to be viewed as an American birthright.
The Boston Marathon bombers, as ineffective as their pyrotechnics otherwise were (a total of four people died in the incident; over the same period of time, a great many more people in the US were murdered by the ordinary means of knives, guns, strangling, etc.), knew where America’s soft underbelly lies. They knew, like the Atlanta bomber in 1996, how to get maximal attention—attack a sporting event or venue. And do it with a bomb. Had they opened fire on the runners with automatic rifles, they surely would have succeeded in killing more people, but without the same terroristic impact as setting off a bomb caused. Terrorism thrives on eliciting an emotionally overwrought response, and in this age of infantile romanticism, Americans ride the sharp edge of emotion over every little thing. And with sporting events, the emotions of the attendees and viewers are already primed and ready for the response the terrorist/criminal seeks.
Were a manual of instructions compiled for eliciting the most impact from the infliction of violence and mayhem against civilized people in the US, it would surely instruct that all incidents include a bomb, preferably exploded at a sporting event. Don’t use a gun, as the cause will be ignored for the clamoring over gun control laws the use of a gun would engender. And while hitting people at their work places (Oklahoma City, New York) is effective, it is not nearly as effective as disrupting a major sporting event; not even a movie theater (Aurora), or an elementary school (Newtown) notches as much impact with as little carnage.
At least I know of one young man who seems to have developed a proper perspective on things. It probably has something to do with his having stared terror in the face, through the specter of two bone marrow transplants, and never once having blinked. My son learned from experience that Nature takes no notice of man’s emotional impulses, and responded to Nature’s indifference with that of his own. He’s lived his life as best as he’s been able, Nature’s indifference be damned. Terrorists, and plain old ne’er do wells, thrive on exploiting emotion. Their efforts are directed at eliciting overwrought emotional responses. The response to them should be roughly the same as was my son’s response to Nature’s disregard for his welfare: studied indifference.
People need to learn to ignore terrorists and the criminally insane. The more attention is paid each succeeding event, the more the pump is primed for the next one. A stiff upper lip—a refusal to cower or to even complain–over the inconvenience and disruption and even loss caused by mass attacks would go a long way towards dissuading them. To be sure, criminals should always be brought to justice for the criminal acts they perpetuate, but shutting down a whole city in order to capture one badly wounded boy is overwrought. We allowed those puny little bombs to resonate far more powerfully than proper given the meager the scope of destruction.
Ignoring the tantrums of fanatics might require Americans to grow up a bit, and become a bit less fanatical themselves, which would inevitably include gaining a more proper perspective on sports teams and sporting events (especially football practices, among other things), something which, in this age of infantilism, seems quite unlikely. Except for one young man finding his way down on the East Alabama plain, I’m not overly optimistic at the prospect.