Saturday, April 24, 2010

On Autographs

Sometime circa 1991, I stood in a line at a Wal-Mart in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin for at least an hour, probably longer. After 20 years I can't be positive of the precise time I invested, but I distinctly recall it being the better part of a weekday evening. I entered the store with a football, and I came out with a football. I didn't actually acquire anything as a result of my wait, unless you count two small scribbles on my football. One of these scribbles was administered by Darrell Thompson, a Green Bay Packers running back who, despite being a first round draft pick (taken two selections later than Emmitt Smith), averaged a little more than 27 yards rushing per game over the course of his career. (For those who might be reading this who don't know much about football-- this would be considered "bad"). The other scribble was administered by Vai Sikahema, a return specialist who, in his lone season with Green Bay, averaged about nine yards per punt return and 22 yards per kick return, with no touchdowns. (For those who might be reading this who don't know much about football-- this would be considered mediocre).

Since I was at an age at which I still had to rely on parental transportation, my unfortunate father (who couldn't care less about football and never cared much for Wal-Mart, either) had to accompany me on my excursion. When it was finally time for us to depart, he asked me about my conversation with the players. I sheepishly admitted to him that I didn't say anything to them other than "thanks." He was incredulous. How could it be that these people were important enough that one would wait in line for over an hour to receive a signature but they weren't important enough to try to converse with? In my defense, I was a kid, unskilled in the art of conversation with unfamiliar adults, and it's not like these intimidating NFL players made much of an effort to converse with me. They had to keep the line moving, after all.

I kept my football for a few more years, adding to it when Packer players would come to town for an annual charity basketball game. Then after awhile the football became deflated, ended up at the bottom of a "toy box," and then faded into some obscure and mysterious place where all deflated autographed footballs probably end up.

But I hasten to assert that the decline of this football was not symbolic of a gradual loss of interest or enthusiasm on my part. No, the truth is that this football never meant anything to me. (Actually, it probably meant something before I dedicated it to autographs, when it actually had a utilitarian value). I collected autographs out of a sense of obligation. Being a sports fan, and being a kid, I felt that I had to be interested in acquiring player signatures. Adults (though not necessarily my father) assumed that you wanted autographs, and if adults thought that you wanted them, you felt like there was something wrong with you if you didn't want them. So you convinced yourself that you wanted them.

To this day I often read or hear critiques of a celebrity's willingness or unwillingness to sign an autograph as somehow representative of their character. Celebrities who take time to sign autographs are regarded as grounded, polite, and even heroic, while those that brush seekers aside are thought of as rude and vain. But isn't there something implicitly arrogant in assuming that your mere signature represents a status symbol that fulfills another's psychological needs? Aren't you tacitly endorsing the idea that you belong to an elite class that deigns to acknowledge those who are subservient to your existence? And if that is not problematic enough, one can further consider the absurd commercial dimension that has been added to the autograph exchange, which includes children being hired by dealers to solicit autographs.

But then again, there is something to be said for the desire of a person to have some kind of tangible record of a meaningful interaction. In contrast to my experience with Darrell Thompson and Vai Sikahema, when I was a senior in high school I had a chance to converse with former Milwaukee Braves shortstop Johnny Logan (he was scouting a baseball game at my school for the Brewers). At the end of our conversation, I asked him to sign his name for me on a sheet of notebook paper. He proceeded to write me a personalized autograph. I still have this sheet of paper tucked away in a box today--not because I think it will be worth anything, but because it represents a neat personal communication.

But one thing I didn't do the day I met Johnny Logan was get a picture with him. The cellphone camera had not been invented yet. Prognosticators speculate that the written letter will be rendered obsolete, that technology will obliterate the concept of a literal "paper trail." I wonder if technology might also play a role in someday obliterating what is now considered the standard record of a celebrity encounter. With written communication going the way of the dodo, why would pen-scrawled celebrity signatures be any different? And if that does happen, I'd say "good riddance." We would be free of the absurdities that the autograph represents, while still having the means to acquire an alternative (and more legitimate) record of meaningful encounters.

But no matter what happens down the road, I will not let my son drag me to a Wal-Mart to wait in line all night for the opportunity to encounter mediocre football players.


Blogger The Hungary Traveler said...

after your recent comment on my use of quotes you have had me thinking a lot about it. so, why in the opening paragraph did you place quotes around bad but not mediocre?

And should I have used quotes when I wrote "bad" and "mediocre?"

5:13 AM  
Blogger The Hungary Traveler said...

It's unfortunate that you would deny your son this rite of passage of sorts. It was this experience that provided you with the foundation to reach an understanding about relative human value, or at least the value of mediocre football players' signatures.

Also, I'll bet your father did benefit at the time in one sense: he gained satisfaction by providing his son with (what he thought was) an enjoyable experience.

5:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't wait to see what your son does convince you to do for him.

12:44 PM  
Anonymous Mike said...

Is the perpetuation of a tradition for the sake of providing satisfaction which is borne only of the false assumption that reciprocal satisfaction is being garnered really the kind of tradition that bears perpetuating?

1:00 PM  
Blogger Teecycle Tim said...

Do you think the autographs would have been worthwhile if the players hadn't been bad and mediocre?

7:58 PM  
Anonymous Mike said...

Tim, I think that's answered by the anecdote about Johnny Logan. When you have a real human connection with someone, that's when the autograph bears significance. I have a football autographed by several members of the Green Bay Packers spanning a number of seasons. Three of them were special to me: Chris Jacke, Robert Brooks, and Ryan Longwell. Brooks' autograph was special because it was days before he shredded his knee and was never the same again. Ryan Longwell's was special because I made him laugh with a joke about how the last time I told a player "good luck" he shredded his knee. And Chris Jacke's was special only because I had Ryan Longwell sign directly next to him.

And all of these were when I was still a kid.

Each of these events contributed to my current perception of "celebrity:" that, in general terms, people are famous only because they are exceptional at something people enjoy watching, whether that be hitting a baseball or acting like a douchebag. Other than that, they're just people, and the idea of an autograph is simply my acquiesence to the notion that I need documentation of our crossing paths.

But, the nature of the interaction is what is truly important. For me, and I feel for Azor as well, those things that humanize a person are what matter, and the things that put up barriers to humanization are artificial and insignificant.

1:11 AM  
Blogger ❤Sandii모래의❤ said...

Then you would have to blog about your experiences of what your son asks you when he grows up. Or better, you're son would blog about it when he gets older. :)

8:32 AM  

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