What Though the Odds: Embracing the Uncertain Future of Football

Fifteen minutes ago, I found out Ara Parseghian died. The former Notre Dame head football coach was 94, long since retired from both coaching and his second career in broadcasting. He’s described as a class act from almost all corners. He went 2-0 against Bear Bryant.

My dad went to every Notre Dame game, home and away, during his senior year in 1966. Ara and the Irish won the national championship. My late uncle Michael attended Notre Dame during Ara’s 1973 national championship season. The name “Ara” was uttered with something between familial and sacred reverence within my Irish Catholic clan, now three generations deep with Notre Dame alumni.

I didn’t attend the university myself, but if anything, that pushed me deeper into fanhood. Coming out of a small liberal arts college distinctly lacking in spirit and pride, I immersed myself in Notre Dame football with a fervor that surpassed anything else in my life. The Fighting Irish were both family and religion. They were my community as lonely a young man. I knew the players’ names and hometowns and jersey numbers. A loss would send me into a funk that could take days to dispel. Losses to Southern Cal (I hear they don’t like being called that) and Meatchicken (it’s too painful to spell out M*chigan) still haunt me.

For those who know college football, you know that recent Notre Dame history has not been particularly lustrous. Three-and-a-half failed coaches left fans longing for a return to glory, a phrase made popular and then ironic during Tyrone Willingham’s ill-fated tenure in the captain’s chair. Current head coach Brian Kelly enters this season on the hot seat after the Irish went 4-8 last year. Worst of all, a losing season no longer feels shocking. The glory days of Notre Dame football seem so long ago it’s hard to recall exactly what it is we ever hoped to return to.

I think, though, that Ara is the coach who best represents Notre Dame’s glory days. Yes, Knute Rockne holds an immortal place in Fighting Irish and college football lore. Frank Leahy put together a run that would rival present-day Alabama in terms of success. Lou Holtz was the last Irish coach to win a national championship in 1988. But it’s Ara who best embodies on-field excellence paired with personal character. Notre Dame fans are often criticized for thinking they’re better than everyone else. While the fans are likely no better than those of any other team, Ara, at least, represented the best among us. Notre Dame fans want to win national championships and “do it the right way.” I think that standard is carried over from Ara’s tenure. Half a century later, and we’re still looking back to him to guide us.

*     *     *

Football has reached a crossroads where fans are in dire need of guidance. A recent study has brought to light the potential risk of permanent brain injury due to repeatedly smashing one’s head against the helmet of an opponent. I don’t mean to make light of the problem, but there has been a limited response from fans, and I wonder if that’s partly because the name of the condition in question, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, creates a clinical detachment where the colloquial “bashing in brains” should have long ago sounded an alarm. While the study in question has received legitimate criticism from some corners, the problem isn’t going away. Even a flawed study can draw attention to a topic that needs addressing.

I can’t speak for Ara, but I know that doing it the right way, in light of this study and others on the long-term damage caused by repeated blows to the head, requires addressing the subject.

Every time a sports reporter interviews a football coach and fails to ask about CTE, that reporter has done a disservice to players. The same players whose daily efforts provide the sports reporter with the subject from which they earn their livelihood. Every time a coach, league official, athletic director, general manager, or other representative of the sport gives an interview or press conference and doesn’t bring up CTE, they betray the players they supposedly represent.

Ignoring this subject is betrayal. It is deliberate, knowing, outright betrayal. When a university like Notre Dame fails to honestly address CTE, then it’s clear that doing the right thing is less important to the institution than paying for upgrades to the stadium. The cost of a jumbotron should never be measured in students’ lives.

If we want to call ourselves fans of the sport, then we must honestly ask ourselves where our loyalties lie. Am I loyal to the interlocking ND logo? Or am I loyal to the kids who take the field. If my answer is not the latter, then I’m kind of an asshole. If you’re a fan of the sport and your first loyalty isn’t to the players, then you are a bad person. Period.

Author Steve Almond has addressed the problems of the sport in his book Against Football and in other writings. He’s abandoned his fandom, and I’m not sure I can argue against his conclusions. CTE isn’t the only problem inherent to the sport. But I also doubt that my leaving the sport behind will make a difference. I need to do something, however, and there’s one area in which sports fans excel: making noise.

I’ve spent four hours at a time screaming in Notre Dame Stadium. I’ve shouted profanities at televisions. I’ve bellowed the Victory March in my dad’s front yard at midnight after finally ending a decade-long losing streak to Southern Cal.

So this is what I’ll do as a fan. I’ll lead a cheer. Both for the sport and against its problems. The institutions and coaches and administrators behind football, at all levels of play, must be held accountable. Football must change. And I want it to change now, before another player suffers at the hands of my passion. The sport will one day look different. As hard as that might be to swallow for the purists among us, I would remind them that it’s been almost 50 years since Ara last coached a game, and even he would never have seen a player don a leather helmet. Tradition is not the same thing as the absence of change.

*     *     *

Ara Parseghian lost three grandchildren to Niemann-Pick Type C Disease. He spent the rest of his life helping to find a cure, with the Ara Parseghian Medical Research Foundation raising more than $45 million. I’ve always looked at this as Ara’s greatest mission, something that transcended all he accomplished on the sidelines. Now, football itself is the disease. I can’t speak for Ara, but I like to think that he would see this problem and lead the fight to rectify it.

My next sports hero will be the first coach who speaks up on CTE. The next legendary sports reporter will be the one asking the hard questions about the welfare of football players. And not just once, but in every interview and press conference. As fans, we should bring up the subject every time we talk about football with friends. Did you see the game? Yes, what are we going to do about CTE? Each moment of our silence is an act of violence against the young athletes we claim to admire.

Being a fan is to love something. To love something is to care for it. Right now, almost all of us fans are failing to care. So make some noise. This is one opponent we should all be able to rally against together.

Recognizing the Faces in Charlottesville

This post was originally a series of Tweets written the day after the first white nationalist rally in Charlottesville.

 

I prize empathy. I find inherent value in trying to understand the interiority of another. Maybe that’s why I’m a writer.

I’m usually able to empathize successfully. I don’t always like what I find, but it’s rare I feel I don’t understand a person’s motivations.

But there are moments from history that overwhelm my empathy. I won’t list those moments, because you know them already.

They’re atrocities on a large scale, or cruelties, or unmotivated hate.

Who becomes a torturer, for example? And even that I understand to a degree. I’ve acted as a bully, and what is that if not torture?

This weekend, as I followed the news from Charlottesville, I found my empathy once again overwhelmed.

These racists, hate-filled and fuming. I don’t understand them. They’re broken to a degree beyond my comprehension.

But I recognize the Charlottesville racists. Their faces have appeared in every scene of atrocity throughout history.

These are the faces of the individuals who operated the gas chamber.

These are the faces of the individuals who tied the noose.

These are the faces of the Gestapo.

These are the faces of the informants who ratted out neighbors to Stalin’s secret police.

These are the faces of the secret police.

These are the faces of torturers.

These are the faces of slave traders.

These are the faces of the willing evil.

The only difference between these racists and history’s villains is that these racists are still weak.

These racists have been emboldened by a racist sociopolitical system, but not yet fully empowered.

They are no different, though, than any villain. They’d line up to repeat any historical atrocity I might name.

They are history’s torturers. The lynchers. The gas chamber attendants. The secret police.

Charlottesville was these racists’ audition for those positions. It was their call for volunteers.

We now know their faces. Don’t forget them.

Most importantly, oppose them. Vocally, actively. They seek the power to act on their worst impulses.

And that power is closer to these racists’ grasp than we acknowledge. Closer than is comfortable to admit.

These racists are eager to be villains.

In the case of these racists, having empathy for them would be a moral failing.

Remember these racists’ faces, and empathy be damned, face them with the loathing they deserve.

Accessing Murakami

I recently emailed a few thoughts on Haruki Murakami’s to the reading group at The Book Lady Bookstore in Savannah, Georgia as they prepared to discuss The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. The edited text of my email is below. Thanks to The Book Lady herself, Joni Saxon-Giusti, for asking me to talk about one of my favorite writers.

 

I think it’s Murakimi’s greatest point of genius that can also make his work difficult to access. His characters act the same way whether they’re exploring magical wells or boiling a pot of spaghetti.

As readers and movie-goers and television watchers, we’re conditioned to expect certain things from our characters. If a ghost emerges from a shadowy corner in the mansion our protagonist recently inherited from an estranged uncle, we expect our hero to run screaming from the house. When Godzilla rises from the ocean depths, we expect the people of Tokyo to flee through the streets. When the wizard performs a feat of magic, we expect onlookers to dismiss it as nothing more than illusion. Murakami’s characters don’t scream, they don’t flee, they don’t doubt. They accept. They take as literal their experiences. Within the context of the book, their experiences, however weird, are quotidian. This is everyday life inside Murakami’s universe.

The scholar Tzvetan Todorov offers this definition of the fantastic: “The fantastic is that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event…” This refers to how a muggle would react if they happened to see Harry Potter perform a spell. But if Murakami had written Harry Potter instead of J.K. Rowling, muggles wouldn’t react at all. Instead of being surprised at every new piece of magic he learns, Harry would simply shrug and go make pasta.

Murakami undermines our expectations. He gives equal weight to the supernatural and the mundane. He creates a unique internal logic for his stories, but he never tries to convince the reader to accept that logic. Either a reader accepts it, or they stop reading.

Is it genius? I would say absolutely yes. But I would also say that just because something is genius doesn’t mean you have to like it.

One final comment: There’s value in reading things that challenge the ways we think, the ways we view the world. We tend to seek out confirmation bias in our reading, and Murakami undermines that, because I don’t think anyone has the life experience to be biased in his direction. Conversely, that little nagging voice in our head that tells us to stop reading something is often the voice of cognitive dissonance. In general, we don’t like brand new things. We like new variations on the things we already find familiar. For me, reading Murakami was one of the first steps I took in overcoming these basic human biases. So even if Murakami doesn’t end up being your author of choice, seek out a book that’s a little harder for you to get into. Don’t just fall back on writing that you can easily identify with and categorize. And then ask yourself: Why does this make me uncomfortable? The answer might be surprising.

Goodbye, Seijun Suzuki

Seijun Suzuki died last week. It’s ok if you don’t know who he is. Outside Japan, he enjoys cult status at best, his films celebrated by movie nerds but few people beyond that. It took almost ten days for news of his death to make headlines in America.

I came to Suzuki by way of Tokyo Drifter, the 1966 film that, along with his next film (Branded to Kill), got him fired from Nikkatsu, the Japanese studio for which he made yakuza flicks in the 1950s and 60s. The studio had asked for simple gangster pulp, but Suzuki delivered the avant-garde.

Tokyo Drifter - Seijin Suzuki

Still from Tokyo Drifter

With Tokyo Drifter, Suzuki took a canned script and crafted the unforgivingly theatrical, intentionally artificial world of Tetsuya ‘Phoenix Tetsu’ Hondo, a mid-level gangster caught up in the machinations of his yakuza bosses. There’s no point in discussing the plot beyond that because the plot’s not the point. Instead, Suzuki banked on style.

It was 1999. New Orleans. Sophomore year of college. I’d bought the Criterion Collection DVD of Tokyo Drifter sight unseen on the recommendation of my late pal Kirk Lawrence. I know you’d know Kirk’s name if he’d lived a little longer. He was a walking filmic encyclopedia, destined to make John Carpenter-style cult classics. Kirk knew I’d like the movie. He understood my stylistic leanings before I did.

I still have that Tokyo Drifter DVD even though I bought the Blu-ray version the day it released. Why hang onto the DVD when I’ll never put into a player again? Nostalgia, for sure, but also because it summons the memory of that first viewing. I describe very few of my experiences as revelatory, but discovering Seijun Suzuki was just that.

Tokyo Drifter doesn’t always make sense. Why is the main character whistling his own theme song? How did he end up in this random shootout? Why does the final scene take place in a minimalist representation of a jazz club? That it doesn’t make sense doesn’t matter. What matters is that it’s captivating. It’s beautiful. It’s good.

I learned from Suzuki the value of throwing your shit out there with style and letting it speak for itself. Style becomes substance. The people who are supposed to get will get it. Don’t let the explanations get in the way of your art. Make the good thing that only you can make.

Here’s to you, Mr. Suzuki, for my earliest lessons in artistic confidence. And here’s hoping I don’t have to get fired to live up to your example.

Talking Goats and the Persistence of Influence

From 2006 through 2008, I worked on close to a thousand local television commercials, hastily produced ads for lawyers, gift shops, restaurants, politicians, radio stations, nonprofits, and furniture stores. During that period, I edited probably two-thirds of the commercials broadcast in Savannah, Georgia.

The most infamous of these were for a Ford dealership. The frumpy owner would stand between two cars on his lot, accompanied by his young son, and explain, in monotone, the latest deal on a Mustang or F-150. Following a hurried “thank you very much,” his son chirped out a prepubescent “and may God bless America.” But that wasn’t the end. One final element remained, and it was this tag that made the commercials’ badness legendary. So legendary, in fact, that they were once voted as the best commercials in Savannah by the readers of the local alt weekly magazine. The commercials crossed the threshold where bad becomes, if not good, then at least memorable.

This car dealer insisted that at the end of every commercial we include a brief video clip of a goat over which was superimposed a comics-style speech bubble. He provided the monthly messages contained therein, ranging from the absurd to the unintelligible, produced, as best we could tell, by whim or by Ouija board. Just the mention of this dealer’s name provokes a headshake, part shameful pride, part straight shame, from anyone who was ever associated with producing his commercials.

Years later, that same video clip of a goat remains, stubbornly standard definition in an HD world. The son, though, disappeared from the public eye as soon as his voice turned, leaving to his father the iconic line: “and may God bless America.”

In newer editions, at the hands of other video producers, the commercials are filmed at the dealer’s desk, upon which sits miniature stuffed goat. Not a toy, but some sort of taxidermied pigmy animal. A cast-off from a carnival sideshow. Why, where even a son’s love for his father could not, did the goat endure? What is the source of this man’s hircine fascination? Wherefore, goat?

The rumor is—and this is the story I share whenever I’m asked, which happens in a city the size of Savannah more often than you might think—that it has something to do with the phrase “I got your goat,” a jibe directed at the owner of another Ford dealership, who claimed that the hero of our commercials would never succeed in an admittedly less prime location. Is this apocryphal? More than likely. But we’ll never know for sure. Unlike the goat, the dealer isn’t talking.

The goat interests me because of how it has taken position in Savannah’s cultural memory. Everyone knows the goat without knowing why the goat exists, and I doubt even that first poor sap—the original video editor who had to look the dealer in the eye and ask “You want what?”—knew the truth behind the baaaa. The cultural memory of this goat, then, has grown well beyond any meaning the goat might have had for the parties originally involved.

I’m not currently working on anything about the goat in particular, but I am working on two projects that have a lot to do with cultural memory. I’ve recently completed the final draft of a novel set in a highly fictionalized version of the Soviet space program, and I’ve started taking notes for another novel in which the bombed-out portion of Hiroshima appears in the middle of present-day Ohio.

In many ways, I’ve moved on from my days of editing goat videos, but in some ways I never will. It’s that phenomenon, the persistence of influence, that’s behind my two big writing projects at the moment. I wonder in what ways cultural memories linger long after the eyewitnesses of events have left us. What am I remembering on their behalf?

Thanks for your time, “and may God bless America.”

Some Books I Read in 2016

The Regional Office is Under Attack!

The Regional Office is Under Attack! by Manuel Gonzales

The book from 2016 that I can't stop talking about.

I can offer no higher compliment than saying that if Manuel Gonzales wrote Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan fiction, I would read all of it. This book borrows from a number of pop cultural sources, Buffy included, and turns that material into high art. Gonzales writes movie-style action that reads like ballet. He writes robotic arms that rival in beauty the best memoirist's recollection of Paris at night. He writes superpowered women who, even while locked in life-or-death battle, struggle even more with their pasts, their humanity, and the prospect of their futures. For all the cleverness of the novel's conceit, for all the fun Gonzales obviously has in crafting his scenes, the Regional Office is a stage he uses to explore our fundamental humanness in a way that wouldn't have been possible without magic and a sense of adventure. This book belongs with the best of fantastical literature.

Pull Me Under by Kelly Luce

Pull Me Under by Kelly Luce

A striking first novel about identity and belonging set in Japan.

Read my interview with Kelly Luce at the Tin House blog...

Every Anxious Wave by Mo Daviau

Every Anxious Wave by Mo Daviau

Time travel. Rock shows. Time traveling to rock shows. Two They Might Be Giants references in the first 50 pages. Love. Things like love that probably aren't. Things like love that might just be love. Every Anxious Wave seems to form out of author Mo Daviau's pet passions, including science fiction and the music of the 80s and 90s, all tied together with a literary bow. It's Dr. Who meets Murakami meets Aimee Bender, with a firmly feminist message hidden beneath our male narrator's sometimes cluelessness. In a novel that upends preconceptions from the very first word, perhaps Daviau's greatest feat is that she managed to surprise me with her take on that oldest of topics, love. So often love is presented as the universe's most powerful force, de facto, but here love makes allowances, and the novel's initial love, damaged and beautiful in its own way, is not celebrated as the ultimate triumph. Instead, it's a cleaner, fixed version of this love, still imperfect but less traumatized, that wins in the end. Love here and now, or in the post-apocalyptic future (oh yeah, did I not mention that part yet?), isn't the absolute. The absolute form of love is actually the flawed form, the one that fosters pining and allows abuse. Instead, a tempered love, one that knows the possibility of improvement, that doesn't tolerate the tragedies inflicted in its name, is the real human goal, a goal that we maybe have to go a couple decades into the future to find.

The Guineveres by Sarah Domet

The Guineveres by Sarah Domet

Four girls named Guinevere abandoned by their parents to The Sisters of the Supreme Adoration. Four comatose soldiers returned from the War and cared for by the Sisters. These two conceits drive the plot of The Guineveres, as the titular girls discover—and lose—themselves within the cloistered life of the orphanage. Narrated by the Guinevere who goes by Vere, but usually in the plural "we," each girl's story starts with loss and seems to be compounded at every turn by further losses. But the core message is one of faith. Not necessarily religious faith. For the Guineveres, faith is the expectation of a better future, one that isn't constrained by the Sisters' rules or boxed in by the orphanage walls. It is faith sprung from hope, and in the end I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad one. No rapturous moment awaits them, no divine passion. Patience is they key virtue, at least for Vere, and its opposite might be the flaw that undoes the close-braided group of Guineveres. Tragic and touching and most importantly a story that rings true.

Bandit: A Daughter's Memoir by Molly Brodak

Molly Brodak’s exceptional new memoir, Bandit, is framed by the story of her father, whose many mistakes culminate with an infamous bank robbing spree in Michigan. While her father’s story could easily take up a book of its own, the real reason Bandit succeeds is because Brodak keeps the story close to herself. It’s a memoir, after all. Still, her father takes up his fair share of the text. He’s an outsized figure in almost every way. I would argue, however, that the memoir is Brodak’s attempt to make the man life-sized. It’s this quest for understanding, the attempt to make sense of what was a senseless past, that makes the memoir unique. She has researched not just her childhood and her father and her family, but also the psychology behind gambling addiction and the history of the now-derelict Detroit neighborhood where her father first lived when he came to America as a small child. She confesses her own phase of shoplifting. She visits her father, and writes him, and maintains some small connection to him even while all the rest of their family has necessarily cut him off. This memoir is a search, and the reward for the reader comes from being invited to take part in it. Brodak won’t offer you any solid answers, except to illustrate that when it comes to her father’s life—and his is an extreme example of life in general—no answer will ever be satisfactory. And that, in the end, is OK.

A Call to See Myself in Action

November 10, 2016

I want to see several women as president in my lifetime, not just one. I want to see the day when we refer to President Trump as the last man of European descent to have lived in the White House. I want to see our representative democracy filled with representatives who actually reflect the makeup of our democracy. I want to see Hispanic senators and black Speakers of the House and gay legislators and queer cabinet members and Muslims and atheists and so many women and people of all genders and and and and and and and… I want to see those very labels rendered unimportant. I want to see this happen at the state level. I want to see this at the local level. I want to be a single part of something 320 million times more interesting than the person I see in the mirror. What I want to see extends well beyond myself. But it’s my job to help see that it happens.

What Savannah Means to Me

December 20, 2015

In December 2015, I was one of several local writers asked to give a short reading on what Savannah means to me. Thanks to Emergent Savannah for the invitation!

 

Tonight, I’m going to talk about my dead best friend. He fell off a cliff. There is, of course, more to that story, but that’s all I’m going to tell for now. We were friends long before he fell. It would have been hard to become friends after.

I’ve never written about Mullins before. That’s his name: Jeremy Mullins. He drew comics and taught at SCAD. He wore a three-piece suit whenever he taught. He wasn’t my first friend in Savannah, but he was my first Savannah friend.

Savannah Skyline

Photo © by Joshua A. Powers

In 2003, I was both a native of Savannah and a transplant. It had been more than a decade since I last lived here full-time, and while my extended family was still around, I had no connections to any of my former peers. If the word “peers” can be used to describe eleven-year-olds. So while I had been baptized here and played tee-ball here and had my first crush on a girl name Kristen in the sixth grade at St. James Catholic School, I was a local by blood only. Savannah was my heritage, not my present.

After college, after a failed search for work in my adopted hometown of Atlanta, after it became clear that a degree in jazz studies prepared you for exactly no forms of employment, I started a part-time, minimum wage job at WTOC-TV. I started going to Gallery Espresso to read and write every evening on the break between newscasts. This was the old Gallery location on Liberty Street, now The Book Lady Bookstore. I’m writing this right now in the new Gallery, where I’ve written almost every morning for years. Still, I miss the old space. I miss the feeling of descent, of taking the two steps down into a space somehow alternative to the street-level just outside. I’d vie there every evening with the other regulars for the one well-lit table in the back left corner.

Mullins was one of the other regulars. I don’t remember how we met. I don’t know who spoke to who first, though I’m pretty sure at that point in my life it wasn’t me. Loneliness is a thing that can starve you, weakening you too much to make a friend even when the opportunity presents itself.

Gallery Espresso moved to its current location. Mullins and I spent so much time there together that I’m sure not a few people thought we were a couple. We’d sit at the counter overlooking the rest of the coffee shop. We’d talk about ideas we had for creative projects, what I was writing and what he was drawing. He introduced me to comic books. “Funny books,” he called them. We would check out every woman who came in. When one met the very particular prerequisites of Mullins’ fancy, he’d make a noise like “ooohhhhnnnnnhhh.” We were knuckleheads, for sure. That was Mullins’ word. I like to think I’m not so much of a knucklehead now, but I think I’m better off for having been one.

I can see that old counter across the room right now. It was actually part of the counter at the previous Gallery location. I still sit there sometimes in the evenings. I still think of the stool on the left as “Mullins’ seat.”

I wouldn’t still be in Savannah if Mullins hadn’t reached out to me a decade ago. I tried for years to move away. Fortunately, those were the years when I was basically unemployable. I realize now that Mullins, a south Florida transplant, was more of a Savannahian than me, a native. We call ourselves the hostess city, but that’s just for tourists. For the locals, Savannah is one big public space. It’s this right here. It’s gathering at coffee shops or bars or art galleries or book readings. It’s a good party. And a good party is more than just fun. A good part means something.

I wonder what Mullins thought when he first saw me, a kid hogging the table with the good light in the corner. Now that I’m on the other side of the table, so to speak, I remember what Mullins did for me. How typical of Savannah it was. To say a simple hello. To make a new friend. I wonder what Mullins would think if he saw me on this stage right now.

What I learned from Mullins, though, is that while it’s simple, it also needs to be deliberate. Effort needs be made. When you see someone worth knowing, goddamn it get to know them. This isn’t some suburb. This is Savannah. And we’re all friends here.

The Great Savannah Tire Fire

February 24, 2014

In a city without skyscrapers, the tallest structure is made of smoke. Maybe that was the source of the fascination, why everyone looked to the west and held up cell phones for photos. Usually it’s just the tourists with cameras, but here was a monument that was new to tourist and local alike.

I walked to Gallery Espresso that morning, planning to finish Wiley Cash’s This Dark Road to Mercy. I’d interviewed Cash a few days before about his upcoming appearance at the Savannah Book Festival, but there were still a few pages of the novel left to go. Speaking of smoke, the novel is structured around the 1998 home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.

I may have smelled something, a faint scent like roasting marshmallows—it makes me wonder what exactly makes up a marshmallow. But I didn’t see the column of smoke, and the dark clouds overhead seemed to threaten rain, not fire. I remember thinking that I should have brought an umbrella.

Erika and B.J. came into the coffee shop. Franklin, their little black and white, flat-faced dog, was tucked under Erika’s arm. Dogs are not allowed in Gallery Espresso. Erika and B.J. asked me if I’d seen the fire. I followed them outside and around the corner, where the buildings and trees weren’t so close.

Black smoke shot fast and high from someplace just past the Talmadge Bridge, roiling into low clouds that caught the wind and fanned out over downtown. The bridge’s gray concrete and white suspension cables looked like something nacred and heavenly next to the darkness of the smoke. The flames stayed low. I’d never see them except in photos.

Back in my sixth-floor apartment, Franklin scurried around, claws clattering on the hardwood. Erika, B.J., and I took turns leaning out the bathroom window to see the column of smoke almost to its base. It came from the direction of the port, Ocean Terminal, if my depth perception could be trusted, where they unloaded foreign cars. I stretched far out the window and snapped several photos on my phone.

B.J. and Erika left. I made lunch, watched an old episode of Naruto on Hulu. I leaned back out the window. The column looked the same. I snapped a couple more photos.

On the way to my car, I thought I could detect the scent more readily. I took photos of the column of smoke from different angles. Here it is with the Hilton in the foreground. Here it is framed by the steeples of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. Here the sky is dark, backlit by a wrong-colored sun. Here is the sky like a portent of the apocalypse.

As I crossed the Talmadge Bridge on my way to Beaufort, South Carolina, I passed within a few hundred yards of the column. I shot a video with my phone, glancing from road to phone to road, trying to keep my car centered in the lane and the camera centered on the smoke. The smoke filled the phone’s whole screen at the closest point. I made sure the AC in my car was set to recirculated.

The column, thick like something solid, receded in my mirrors, keeping its shape until well above the bridge, like it didn’t want to break apart. The motion of the smoke implied sentience, turning into itself, eddies of thought, self-reflection, until exhausted, with a reluctant sigh, at some height both mathematically predictable and unknown, it spread as a dark stain on the air.

I merged onto SC-170. The column of smoke was replaced by the trunks of trees.

*     *     *

On another day, staring off into the distance would have made me the curiosity. Stopping at odd corners and holding one’s phone aloft requires a reason. But that day, most people in Savannah were brought together by the mysterious darkness that claimed a portion of the skyline. If someone saw me and followed my gaze, they would have understood without explanation what held my attention. They would know why I held up my phone and snapped pictures.

But why this cult of the unusual? What about an unexpected column of smoke makes us understand one another when we’re otherwise so often a culture divided along party lines? Why does “holy shit, look at that” overwhelm our usual biases? Why did the video of this fire in which no one was hurt make national news?

Certainly, at least for the last of these questions, the answer is spectacle. But for a person in Albuquerque, their moment of “holy shit, look at that” dissolves as soon as the news plays the next similarly startling scene (when I worked in local television, the portion of the broadcast that featured national news of this sort was referred to, at least internally, as “the death and destruction block”).

The local newspaper printed photos the next day, many of them submitted by random readers. My Facebook timeline filled with pictures of the plume from dozens of friends. In several of the photos, framed wide by a cell phone’s zoomless lens, it seems that the people in the foreground, all with phones held high, are the subject, not the smoke in the background.

We’re all reduced to innocence in our curiosity. But instead of remaining curious in our everyday interactions, we learn to have conviction and belief. We’re taught that certitude is a virtue. We’re taught that to doubt oneself is weakness.

Granted, consumed by doubt is no way to live, but as the column of smoke showed, we live better together when we give in to wonder. Curiosity lowered our cultural shields. In the moment when the whole city looked up, I was no different than the tourist with her expensive camera, no different than the homeless guy on the park bench.

What would happen if we treated other people like we did the smoke? If we approached them as something worthy of inquiry? Is it possible to search for the fire that burns at the base of a person? I suspect that at the base there are more similarities than differences. Most of us, at least, share the impulse to gaze at something unusual in the sky.

I’d found the dark, mottled clouds to be ominous, but maybe I was wrong. Looking back at all of us looking up, the smoke was just a curiosity. It allowed us to be disarmed. If that’s still possible, if our divides can be crossed on a bridge fragile as air, then that dark smoke was a symbol of our potential to overcome petty differences.