‘Tis the Season of Stale Bread and Sad Circuses

Every time of year is ripe for bread and circuses in America.  There is nary a day when you can’t eat cheap fast food and indulge in aimless distractions. There are all the holidays, like Christmas, Memorial Day, and Labor Day, which used to mean something but now are little more than convenient excuses for shopping sprees and drunkenness.  There’s the endless streams of Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon to complement the more traditional time wasters of cable TV and the broadcast networks.  There’s the Friday happy hours capping off a miserable week of work with shallow social relationships, cheap booze, and finger food.  And of course there’s always your phone.  Angry Birds, Candy Crush, Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, Reddit, WhatsApp, QQ, all those photos you took, all those photos people are sending you, GIFs galore, and tic-toc, tic-toc, text, text, text.

It never ends.

And perhaps it never did.  Perhaps it’s simply that society is wealthier than it’s ever been before, leaving people with more leisure time, cheap food, and expendable income than prior generations could have imagined.  Perhaps our ancestors pined for the chance to wile away their lives but simply lacked the time and resources to do so. Perhaps they were too busy laboring in factories and on farms, trudging and hustling, to become so thoroughly absorbed in nothingness as we do today. If our great-great grandparents could see us now, maybe they’d scold us for paying insufficient attention to the republic’s affairs, or spending too much time on food and drink and idle entertainment, but not enough time in the House of the Lord, improving our souls and making amends for our sins.

Or maybe they’d just be jealous.  Maybe whatever criticisms they lobbed at us would be born of anxiety and envy, designed to hide the sad yearning within them, the hopeless desire that they too could have so easily filled their bellies and wasted their lives.

Because maybe floating upon a lost cloud of minor hedonism is the best we can hope for.
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The Super Bowl and the Academy Awards.  They have an odd way of stirring me to think about all this.  On the surface, they are very different events that have built up different cultures and attract rather different, if overlapping crowds.

But really, they’re the same.

The sentimental holidays of late November-early January are firmly behind us.  The three-day weekends of bright sunshine, burnt flesh, and drunken nationalism are still months away.  Between them lay the individualized distractions of winter and spring, months of cocooning with your screens or ear budded jogs and dog walks.  And amid the months spent on sagging couches and along winding paths to nowhere, up jumps this major punctuation in the deepest of winter, the yin and yang of glowing galas reminding us that all of our wasted hours can be bundled up into a grand, shared affair of clapping and competition.

Whether it comes from steroidal, helmeted men in plastic armor performing acts of gladiatorial violence, or the chiseled and statuesque draped in black coats and plunging, slitted dresses, traipsing up the red carpet so they can see and be seen before they lock in smiling, tearful tussles, we, the hoi polloi, gather round our ever widening televisions and watch and root and drink beer and sip wine and pop pop corn and pretzels and chips and salsa and wings and deviled eggs and crackers and cheese into our mouths, loudly or quietly rooting for this sports team or that film worker to smile and raise the trophy.

Masses of people who care not for football, or did not see any of these movies, will huddle together and watch the parades of uniforms and sparkling jewelry.  They will fawn and jeer, the vicarious collective heaving up its waking dreams, before fragmenting back into lonely individuals talking into hairbrushes and catching invisible balls.

These are the winter circuses.  This is what truly unites us.  These are the days of cloying laughter and crocodile tears.  These are the evenings of preening and prayer.
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111 million Americans watched the Super Bowl yesterday.  Only about 40 million Americans will watch the Academy Awards on March 4th, but international spectators will push total viewership well into the nine-figure range.

Hundreds of millions, teeming masses across the country and around the globe, sharing, rejoicing, and mourning other people’s dreams.  And as they genuflect, stringing together the gossamer of their own fantasies.  Wondrous gauze to hide us from the here and now.  Shrouds upon our eyes, veiling us against the bleak emptiness of lives that have no meaning beyond obligation.  Temporal illusions cast upon our souls that marshal endorphin, dopamine, and serotonin in forceful, euphoric waves, lifting us up, ever so briefly above the sad banality of seconds flowing endlessly like the constant drip of a leaky pipe in a vast, empty, concrete-floored warehouse where you sit, strapped to a folding chair, patiently awaiting the inquisitioner who never arrives.  Quietly wondering why what’s left of God can save you from anything but your own being.

The grunts and clacks of plastic warriors before the roar of a crowd.  The staccato reading of a name and the swirl of the orchestra.  And you.  Reaching, clasping hands with those beside you, all of you opening up to embrace the shared phantasm of being someone victorious, someone transcendent, someone loved.

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