Sunday, January 22, 2017

Watch and Rewatch

I grew up not reconsuming media.

With the exception of one, particular favorite (Patricia C. Wrede’s Dealing With Dragons), I didn’t re-read books, perhaps because I only liked reading enough to justify one pass through a towering pile of two hundred-plus pages of text.

Moreover, as devout as my family was about watching the same television shows from week to week without skipping an episode (even taking advantage of VCR recording to keep track of shows we had to miss, or that conflicted with other programs that took precedence), when it came time for summer reruns, we tuned out, and favored catching up on video rentals from the preceding month. My father would copy some of these movies from one VHS tape to another, with what was a startlingly modern two-VCR set up for the time, and we would watch some of these films over, but typically at the behest of my parents, particularly if we edged toward the same movie more than once in the same month. Aren’t you sick of that? they would ask, in reference to The Great Muppet Caper, Follow That Bird, and oddly enough Beaches (the Bette Midler vehicle out of which I still feel a sort of absurd emotional attachment to “The Wind Beneath My Wings”).

This was before the days when people like Malcolm Gladwell had exposed to the masses that kids love routine and predictability and that rewatching television shows and films are a normal portion of development that, when used appropriately, can even be a learning tool to internalized the implicit or explicit lessons of a given product. I think my parents were more concerned with reinforcing expansiveness instead--being conscious that there’s a whole world of books, movies, television shows, songs, paintings, and places to consume and thus we should keep moving on.

I share all of this, in part, to contextualize the abrupt shift when I started hanging out with Mike (my best friend of twenty-five years, not a third-person reference to myself). I recall lazy summer days in the living room of his house, and a day when we watched Blank Check. The film is child’s fantasy in which a wealthy businessman accidentally wrecks a kid’s bike. In a hurry, the tycoon leaves the kid the eponymous blank check to pay for whatever the damages may be, and the kid ends up cashing it for a cool million dollars (note: I have not done my homework and am recounting this plot purely based on memories from over twenty years ago). Hijinks ensue, and along the way kid learns that money can’t buy happiness.

This is an un-nuanced, poorly acted movie with little to no redeeming value beyond the initial conceit that a kid gets to live out the fantasy of having boat loads of money to do with as he pleases. I found myself marginally drawn into it, but considered it an indulgence and an exploration--a rare stopover into something puerile that was enjoyable enough at the time but that would have little impact on my life. It was a sugary soda. A comic book. A crude crayon drawing. A fine enough way to pass ninety minutes before being done with it forever.

But then Mike wanted to watch it again.

“We just wateched it,” I said.

“So?” he asked.

And so would begin a summer chock full of watching rewatching bad movies, each a half dozen or more times. Yes, we would also play basketball outside, and we would talk, but with our only adult supervision his grandmother who lived in a downstairs apartment, we were largely left to our own devices, and largely wound up in front of the TV.

I didn’t own this part of my identity. I thought it was an aberration in my own behavior, for which I kind-of-sort-of looked down on Mike for not reading more or making art, oblivious to the fact that in following his lead for all of those afternoons, I was, at best, the same.

And then I discovered my own fascination with reconsuming media.

It started with My So-Called Life--the first television show that I truly fell in love with, feeling the sensation that these writers and actresses and actors got something fundamental about the human condition as I experienced it. The feelings only intensified when the ABC Network unceremoniously cancelled the show, leaving it at one perfect season that I would both treasure and have the fuel to feel righteously indignant about for years to follow. MTV acquired the rights to the show and would air weekend marathons of it, that I dutifully sat through as much of as I could. In the years to follow, selected episodes came out in VHS release. As soon as I had the requisite Christmas, birthday, or allowance money saved up, I bought them and rewatched them with a passion that re-stirred my mother’s questions from my much younger days about how I could tolerate watching the same forty-five minutes of programming over and over again.

I followed up that passion with an obsession over the world of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. I got hooked based on a rerun of “Bothered, Bewitched, and Bewildered,” the summer between seasons two and three. Newly equipped with Internet access, I printed off full transcripts of the scripts of all the episodes I had missed and I started buying blank VHS tapes to record episodes as they aired so I might consume them all time and again.

I grew immersed in the world of BtVS--in its characters and its mythologies. I studied episodes and looked up the pop culture references I didn’t understand. I read spoilers in hopes of picking up on overarching trajectories where they began.

My BtVS obsession became something like scholarly study--unregimented and unpoliced, but just the same rigorous, and driven by predisposition. Thus, it planted the seeds of study to follow. For years of reading and rereading to figure out how things worked. Until they weren’t fun anymore and I fell out of love. Until I loved them all over again.

As a composition instructor, I subjected my students to a microcosm of this experience. Given the opportunity, I eschewed the traditional study of a literary text in favor of focusing on music videos. I challenged each student to select one and write a detailed analysis. Then to incorporate research about the video, the song, the artist, or most ideally some bigger issue that all of this introduced. Then they crafted term papers--six-to-eight pages of sustained argument.

When they picked their video to study, I cautioned them that they may not want to pick songs they loved. Because in order to do the video justice (and to succeed in the progression of the assignment) they would need to watch and listen over and over again. Until they, too, had grown tired of the original media, and with the full knowledge that many of them may not go far enough rediscover or reinforce that original love, but rather just grow bored and forever associate that music video with middling attempts at papers and middling grades from their first-year comp instructor.

Some of them didn’t like me or their video by the halfway point of the term.

Some of them did.

But whether they agreed with me or not, and whether or not they ended up embracing such iterative processes, I came to recognize the value of the process in my own life. For intellectual study, yes, but also for letting myself go. For re-listening to the same holiday jingle that strikes my fancy ad nauseum in December. For still cycling back to watch favorite episodes of My So-Called Life and Buffy the Vampire Slayer fifteen to twenty years after I sat in awe of them the first time.

I can mouth along the words to most of the dialogue. See, in my mind’s eye, still frames of the actions to come.

Sometimes I still discover something new.

And sometimes, I still sit in the comfort of the familiar. In a life full of change, I embrace these kernels of my teenage years and all the while add new media to my canon. The stuff that shapes an identity. Watched and rewatched.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

On Basketball Cards

I can still remember the joy of it.

Foil wrappers breaking open at the top seam after I lifted the lip on one side, pinched the other side between my thumb and forefinger and pulled. Do it enough times and you’ll never tear a wrapper again.

Sometimes I saved those wrappers but as days turned to weeks to months to years, I lost most sentimentality about such things, crumpling them in to a hidden pile, not to go out with the regular trash, so that my parents would never get a sense of just how much of my disposable income was disposed upon the world of basketball trading cards.

And I got to the cards. I rifled through these glossy pieces of 2.5 by 3.5 inch cardboard. Each with a full color photograph of a crossover, or a jump shot, or a slam dunk. I was looking for stars. From 1995 to 1999, my prime collecting years, Michael Jordan cards consistently drew the highest valuation of any active player; Shaquille O’neal, Anfernee Hardaway, and Grant Hill weren’t far behind. The cards of lesser stars—the guys who came off the bench for middling teams, were deemed “common cards” all valued at the same base level of approximately five cents (though, for a premium brand like Flair, commons could be marked as high as a quarter).

And then there were inserts—dubbed as such for their random insertion into different packs, at different rates. A 1:5 ratio (one card inserted for every five packs was good); 1:36 was premium—statistically, one card for every thirty-six-pack box. And then there were higher ratios than that. Inserts tended to feature more ornate designs, often themed around a specific style of player like young players on the rise or the NBA’s best dunkers. They had more exclusive rosters, often including only upper-tier players, and the relative scarcity of the cards gave them an immediately higher valuation—insert common cards often worth a dollar more, and inserts of star players typically reaching into the double if not triple digit values. In the latter days of my collecting habit, autographed cards, and cards that encased swaths of actual game-worn jerseys became all the rage and drew exorbitant dollar values, reaching into the thousands.

But my interest started with a single card. A 1990-91 card of Christian Welp, produced by Hoops—an economy brand of the larger Skybox card company (many companies featured different lines ranging from the economy ones that sold for a dollar a pack, to premium that went for five dollars and up). When my best friend started collecting, already a couple years ahead of me in his obsession with basketball, I looked at his cards and recalled this Christian Welp one that had come tucked in a cereal box. I couldn’t remember Welp’s name, though, and thought it might have been Christian Laettner or Chris Mullin—I was sure he was white and the name started with Chris. Enthusiastic at any prospect of a card worth anything, my friend urged me to find the card and bring it over. So I ran home and dug it out a stack of potentially important artifacts, placed in my nightstand drawer to separate them from the rest of the clutter of my room. I remember the sight of that card when I excavated from its miscellaneous pile, amidst copies of TV Guide with covers I liked, a VHS compilation of The Best of WrestleMania, a school paper that my Language Arts teacher had left especially nice comments on. The card was mercifully unbent and a little dusty. And it featured Christian Welp.

I brought the card to my friend's house, already guessing that I had overestimated its worth. But when he looked at it and asked, “Who’s Christian Welp?” I knew for sure that I had a dud—my first common card.

Still, I had discovered that initial rush. The prospect of holding something valuable in your hands that even discovering it was worthless couldn’t wholly diminish. A souvenir from the fundamentally attractive world of basketball, but also the prospect of a long-term investment. I heard stories of how previous generations fed trading cards through the spokes of their bicycles, ruining them worse with each spin of the tires. Mass production and a quorum of serious collectors, conscious of condition, meant that the scarcity of cards from decades past would never truly be reproduced; the market was already inflated, and I was unlikely to see that much return on my investment. I knew that intellectually. Just the same, for every idealistic, pseudo-pragmatic, and personal purpose, I was hooked on collecting and preserving.

That weekend, when my parents brought me to the mall, I spent twenty dollars stocking up on different packs of cards--mostly Upper Deck’s economy set, Collector’s Choice. I came home and found I’d scored a fairly rare insert of the fairly highly valued Hakeem Olajuwan, my first card valued as high as fifteen dollars. The habit was reinforced.

Before long, the random opening of packs had become just one dimension of the basketball card game. There were singles as well. Card shops opened their own packs or bought cards from collectors that were of a relatively high value and put them under glass showcases in their stores. They typically sold these cards for a bit less than book value to encourage sales. Thus there came a choice—buy packs for the inherent pleasure of gambling and chance at an unexpected score, or buy a single and know exactly what you were getting.

I, of course, engaged in both. I burned through any cash I could get my hands on in short order. Moreover, the trading aspect of trading cards drew into sharp focus. It started with my friend who got me hooked and I swapping cards, each having our favorites we protected fiercely, each having the cards we were willing to let go. Our natural predispositions toward quality (him) and quantity (me) came into sharper focus when we made our biggest trade, two cards with a combined value of about twelve dollars on my end, in exchange for all of his common cards—a boon of several hundred cards that was cumulatively easily several times more valuable, but no individual card of which was worth more than a dime.

As an aside, I should clarify that we drew our valuations from Beckett magazines—in particular, Beckett Basketball Monthly, a periodical that featured about fifty newsprint pages worth of pricing guides per issue, stretching back to the 1948 Bowman’s Best series (George Mikan’s rookie card from that series was, for the bulk of my collecting days, the crown jewel of the basketball card collecting world) up to the most recent releases. The other half of the magazine was devoted to glossy color pages with articles about basketball, decent journalism curated and edited with an eye toward rationalizing valuations and spotlighting contemporary money draws.

My trading circles spread to about five other boys on the school bus. Of all of them, I carried the most substantial collection to and from school each day, a white two-inch binder chock full of three-by-three protective plastic sheets in which I organized cards by player--first by their relative dollar values, then in alphabetical order. Others had smaller binders, some just a collection of hard plastic cases, others loose cards with bent edges, bound in rubber bands.

There were good trades and bad trades. On the school bus, we rarely pulled out price guides—at best a nerdy practice, at worst a suggestion that you didn’t trust what another collector was quoting you (albeit with good reason, since most of us inflated our prices to a reasonable degree—sometimes to deceive, sometimes to balance out the perceived mark up on the other end). As my trading circles spread into the school, it became an unexpected delight to trade with someone less concerned with price values, more concerned with collecting cards of their favorite players, or perhaps even purer, for which the pure aesthetics of the card gelled with their sensibilities.

In the latter days of my collecting, I eased from spending money on cards on a weekly basis and making trades daily, into buying a pack on a lark once every few months, and rarely breaking out my binder. But I did settle into that purer space, focusing on my collection of cards featuring my favorite player from my favorite team, Patrick Ewing. Unconcerned with dollar values, I focused on sheer quantity, accumulating two hundred-plus Ewing cards by the time I stopped actively pursuing my collection. A few years later, my best friend bookended the whole experience with a Christmas gift of a 1986-1987 Fleer Ewing card—officially recognized as his rookie card, bearing a book value of fifty dollars.

I still own the overwhelming majority of this card collection. A framed display of seven of my favorite and highest valued cards remains a memento from a different time. The remaining collection sits, split into two cardboard boxes I haven't meaningfully sorted through in over a decade. I realize that I probably should sell off the bulk of it—that I could feasibly score a couple hundred bucks if I struck the fancy of the right buyer on eBay.

Just the same, like anyone who once knew the magic of collecting cards, I crumble at the idea of letting go altogether. I'm holding onto nostalgia, sure, but just as sure continuing to take the sucker’s bet that one day these cards may swell in value, or that I might pass them on to a son or daughter who will care about them as much as I did.

So, I wait. All of those cards, like the joy that once surrounded them, collecting dust.