that august feeling

words: david roth

It is not really Jay Cutler’s fault that he has the sort of face he has. Cutler most definitely has One Of Those Faces, and much of what has been reported about him during his 11 years playing quarterback in the NFL suggests that his face is an accurate enough reflection of who and how Jay Cutler is. Cutler’s is a great rumpled onomatopoeia of a face, frozen more often than not in a reflection of pure agonized hangover. It is the face of a man waiting for a bus at 5:25am, and it always looks this way. Even when he is in pain, Cutler mostly just looks inconvenienced. At rest, he sags into the glumly absent expression of someone reading the menu in an airport Chili’s. Years ago, a man on the internet started Photoshopping cigarettes into and onto photos of Cutler, sticking out of his fist or dangling from his lip. While this is still a thing that people do, it is no longer necessary. At this point and also for many years before, the cigarette is implied.


There is no story that could be told about the owner of this face that you would not believe, and there are many such stories; the best of these involves Cutler drunkenly and preemptively bellowing “DON’T CAAAAARE” at a fan who approached him in a Chicago bar. I had thought that I would write something about Jay Cutler, who came out of a very brief retirement this week to sign a $10 million contract with the Miami Dolphins. And then the conversation abruptly turned, as it has with some frequency over the last year or so, towards the end of the world. The blasé emergency quarterback for a mediocre AFC team, a man last seen brazenly tossing backfooted picks while wearing an expression most commonly associated with people sneaking farts in crowded public spaces, did not really matter so much. Or he mattered a lot? Look.


Look: these are uneasy times, and more specifically this is August. The unease of our broader moment is bleeding lustily enough to stain everything else, but also there is nothing of sufficient substance to stem that rush. The flatlands of August are the biggest fallow spot in the sports calendar, and we are all there, now, waiting. Nothing but the sun-dazed and inconsequential third fifth of the baseball season is actually happening, and while there is still a great deal of exhaust honking out of sports media’s hideous roaring tailpipe, it is necessarily abstract. Baseball players are placed on waivers for various procedural reasons, and we are told about it when it happens. There are rumors that we will see the NBA schedule sometime soon, or soonish. People whose job it is to do so are live-tweeting drills from NFL training camps; other people are parsing the stacked emojis of tersely passive-aggressive Instagram posts to see what one NBA player really thinks about another one.


And this is just kind of it, for a while. It will be weeks before anything of note—a game that counts, or that has an outcome worth getting upset about—will even be in sight. It is the time of year when Jay Cutler joins the third-best team in a four-team division qualifies as news, even and maybe especially when he shows up looking like he slept in a mid-sized rental car, and admits that he might not necessarily be in the best physical shape at this moment.


Every day has the same number of hours, which means that every day-sized Discourse Unit must of necessity contain the same amount of noise, but when there is nothing to fill those hours this is what you get. Stupid little stormlets kick up and gush LaVar Ball-scented gouts of stinging rain and then pass, and everyone walks around all day with wet socks. This is not just a sports thing. This endless circular vamping around the usual topics is on every channel and in every open tab, all of it shot through with the same deeply testy impatience and stressed-out edginess and general sour waiting room vibe. There is the ambient sense that something—and maybe something terrible—might happen, and maybe happen soon, but there is also the inescapable fact that it is either not happening yet or happening extremely slowly, in a way so enervating as to be imperceptible. The interplay of boredom and anxiety, and the embedding of one within the other, is part of the fun of watching baseball, but the broader world of sports in August is not like that. The boredom and the anxiety are both there, insistently and undeniably, but they are just there, as inert and heavy as humidity.


Jay Cutler slouching behind a podium in a Miami Dolphins polo shirt might indicate something or it might not. It further proves out the NFL’s shameful and petty blackballing of Colin Kaepernick or it just points up the recursive soft-headedness of NFL human resources. Cutler’s surly presence is funny or frustrating or illuminating or meaningless or some other thing or things, but it finally signifies only itself—a man who does not terribly want to be where he is, giving obligatory answers to questions asked in expectation of those very answers. There is a good deal of palpable distaste on every side of the equation, and if there’s anything revealing about any of it, that distaste is probably it. Nobody really wants to work in August; nobody really thinks that this is important work.


August’s signature absence of incident is, in this moment, somehow more stressful than the alternative. What is by rights a vacuum cannot be permitted to remain that way. The broader moment being what it is—heavy clouds and some intermittent sun, little blips of promise breaking the surface, the erosive tidal wash of everyday troubles—the vacuum is flooded, desperately, with blank and vicious contention and amorphous worry and fiery intimations of the void, mostly because that is the sort of thing that’s on people’s minds right now. The apocalypse talk that soured what should have been a nice afternoon of enjoying Jay Cutler’s majestically salty indifference was, in a thuddingly concrete way, the result of this—the President is on a long vacation and bored, he saw something that upset him on the cable news morning show he likes, he later improvised an improvident bit of hambone bluster about it into an open mic, and then everyone spent the rest of the day contemplating mass death. That was Tuesday.


And then it’s over, or at least gone by. This is how it goes in August—chatter and speculation and idle argumentation to pass the time waiting for whatever is coming, whether it’s some broader reckoning or just the beginning in earnest of a pennant race. The dread stacks up and then it blows away, the calendar dwindles and thins, and people find things to argue about and then argue about them. The day after the one in which he riffed on world-historical destruction dawned hazy and hot, and the President was back on the golf course; a photo of him showed up on Instagram, wearing his red hat. The early reports out of Dolphins camp are that Jay Cutler has looked sharp.


There is no one thing that sports are for, exactly, but when our games work, they work as deliverance from this. Not just from the routine, but from how routinized it can all seem—they show us flight and strength and creativity, and all that rises as an answer to an entirely different set of questions than the ones asked, in active bad faith or just in defiance of dead air, during the other hours of the day.


All art works like this, when it works. Grace is always a surprise, and when sports give us grace it serves as not just an escape from but a rejoinder to the exhausted world of our expectations. It’s a lot to ask of a game, in a sense—to remind us that, in a world that can feel arbitrary and corrupt and stupid and cruel, there is also and always a bright and stubborn spirit at work, and that it will surprise us. The truth of that feels far away, in this month and in this moment, but the power and point of it is that you don’t see it coming until it’s on you, and you’re in it.