In February, LauraBeth (then my girlfriend, now my wife) flew to Iowa City to visit me for my birthday. It was colder there than I had ever thought possible—negative thirty degrees, factoring in wind chill. The kind of cold that would kill a Martian. The college students still went out at night in short skirts and t-shirts, because they didn’t want their jackets to smell like smoke. These two years in Iowa City were the last time in my life when I would know what it felt like to sit in a bar with dozens of smokers, lit cigarettes glowing like alligators’ eyes in the dark, smoke snaking its way into my lungs and my hair and my clothing forever.
I didn’t have to pay for utilities in my apartment, so I set the thermostat to 80 and we quarantined ourselves in the greenhouse heat. My mom had mailed me a care package that included authentic cheesesteaks, Tastykakes, and a birthday banner, which we hung above the couch. We ate chicken parm and an ice cream cake, and we watched the NBA All-Star skills competition on the new TV she had bought me that morning. We’d driven together to Best Buy to pick up a 27-inch flat screen, replacing the one I’d owned since I was 15. This was now the fanciest TV I had ever owned, though it was still a monstrous tube model so big didn’t fit in my hatchback. We removed it from the box at the store, crammed into the trunk, and drove home with hazard lights flashing and the rear windshield flapping in the wind like a ridiculous mouth laughing at us the whole way. I lived on the second floor, and carrying that TV up a narrow, winding flight of stairs was the most physically demanding thing I did in all of 2005. I preferred watching sports to engaging in them. I was gaining weight again rapidly, and people kept saying things like, “You’ve really filled out,” which is only meant as a compliment when you say it to toddlers or rescue dogs.
Sports have always been a central fact of my life, but never more so than my two years in Iowa City—they were the one thing that helped me still feel connected to home when I was alone in my apartment and feeling like a failure as a writer and a teacher— and so I was as invested in the dunk contest as anyone in the country that night. This is the point where, if I’ve had a few drinks and a somewhat willing audience, I would spend the next hour demanding justice for Andre Iguodala, who was robbed of the dunk contest title that year. This is also where I would complain about Nate Robinson getting unlimited attempts to hit his final dunk. But I’m trying to get better about that kind of thing. I realize nobody cares.
LauraBeth grew up with two athletic and ultra-competitive brothers, and through a combination of genetics, conditioning, and sheer force of will, she now harbors an antipathy to competition that is healthier than my worldview but is, frankly, a little unnerving. She played field hockey in high school, but never felt any particular drive to win. She will not play board games or engage in other competitions with the rest of the family because of how much she hated all of it when she was young. She watches sports with me, but can’t help feeling badly for the losing team after the final whistle (even if it’s a team we all justifiably hate, like the Dallas Cowboys). She asks me to change the channel so we can look away from their sagging shoulders and heartbroken faces; she sees them not as enemies, but as young men, some young enough they can’t even legally drink, enduring one of the worst moments of their lives. Though this is not remotely how I live or think, I understand it to be an admirable trait. All of which is to say, exhibition sports are the ideal environment for her. The guys in the dunk contest, like every pro athlete, are pathologically competitive, but they are just having fun and there are no real consequences for losing.
I want to clarify something: dunks matter more than you think they do. You may want to tell me it’s all a big dumb spectacle and the scoring doesn’t make sense, and it’s just a show to sell Sprite and sneakers, and yes, sure, that’s what it is. But strip all the nonsense away and you see an aesthetic achievement that can only be performed by a tiny percentage of humans in world history. Each dunk is one of the most perfect sporting achievements on the planet, a beautiful expression of athletic perfection, of power, speed, and creativity. These players—their bodies built specifically for this feat, spinning in the god damn air, not just floating because there’s violence propelling it, and throwing it down behind their heads with more grace and fluidity in the coordination than many dancers—are the culmination of a century worth of training, learning, and evolutionary adaptations. Major sports leagues should take themselves less seriously anyway. What’s more ridiculous than watching a group of NFL men in a TV studio, wearing suits and standing on a fake field while they shout about honor and duty? It’s one of the worst aspects of our culture. Events like the dunk contest puncture the veneer of self-importance that covers every major league. They remind people that this is dumb and the dumbness is what makes it fun.
A couple years after I moved back to the east coast and we bought a house and got married, we finally bought another new TV, upgrading to HD, which helped us more clearly see the anguish on the faces of the losing teams. The TV she got me for my 23rd birthday was transferred to the attic, and then when we moved again it went to the basement of the new house, and, finally, we hauled it out to the curb, where it sat for a week before I learned that this is not how you dispose of a TV anymore (on any given day in the suburbs, sidewalks are dotted with hulking tube TVs like meteors crashed to earth). I could have left it on the curb for years. Eventually I would drag some old furniture out there and that would stay too and soon our whole living room could be on the sidewalk, a mirror of the lives we tried to hide inside.
Because our house is full of toxic materials the township won’t collect, we drove one afternoon with a trunk full of paint cans, dangerous solvents, and batteries, to the landfill in Pennsauken, New Jersey. I wrote a research paper on landfills in high school biology, but I don’t get the science behind them, whether there is anything more to it than digging a giant hole and filling it with garbage until the earth is too full and then you move down the road to a new hole. Once it’s out of my sight, I trust that it is someone else’s problem. All this stuff was alive once and you expect it to smell like death, but it smells like nothing (the landfill itself has a 5-star rating on Google, with the top review stating, “It don’t even smell”). We dropped our trash in the appropriate areas, ending at a walk-in dumpster, a container for obsolete electronics. Inside, piled floor to ceiling, were TVs and computer monitors. The foundation of these stacks was several vintage console TVs, each of which I imagined having been passed down through their families they became too unwieldy to move anymore. Maybe they trundled through thrift stores and flea markets, through the homes of various well-meaning people planning to fix them up and turn them into a cool showpiece in their art school loft, but eventually they were hauled to this spot.
Being in the center of a county dump is humbling and a little upsetting. It is a reminder that even if, like me, you think of yourself as being a minimalist, most people are surrounded by garbage. It’s all disposable and you’re disposable too. It’s all replaceable and you’re replaceable too. In 2005, this TV was the center of my world, and now it would be piled, for the rest of the life of the planet, in this dumpster in Pennsauken. It would outlive me by a million years, and that whole time it would be utterly useless, just plastic and wires, there forever.