Every March, for the last five years, I’ve filled out a March Madness bracket, along with my son. As the tournament unfolds, we groan and moan or smile and high-five when our picks disappoint or delight. As our household moves from winter to spring, it’s our thing—my elder son and me. And it makes no sense.
He’s a huge football and hockey fan who only gets excited about basketball when the NCAA Championships approach. I know virtually nothing about basketball. At 23 I’m sure he has—and in fact, all through college he had—better things to do than play Bracket Bingo with Mom. And yet, we persist, scribbling on those intricate grids, those blank spaces of possibility.
We started our own mini-madness during his senior year of high school. The college acceptances were arriving, full of promise, the financial aid envelopes were arriving, full of doubt, and we were both exhausted and irritable after months of college visits. Sure, there were some terrific bonding times, but there were also disagreements, annoyance, and a sense of just wanting it all to be finished.
“Hey Mom, want to fill out a bracket?” he asked one early March day. “It’ll be fun to see what happens.”
Super Bowl pools and worksheets I knew about; I’d met my husband at a New York Giants game, and I actually understand the difference between a Hail Mary and a nickel back (not Nickelback). But I have no idea what double-double is, what a rim protector does, why throwing a brick is bad.
Still, each year I study the college teams. This year, there are 64 colleges, so I’m working hard, getting my bracket done before the first tip-off on Thursday. In other words: I’m totally winging it, picking teams the way I place bets at the track—according to whim, serendipity, and funky sounding names.
GONZAGA. Cool name for a college. Definitely a winner.
DUKE. Even I know they’re a basketball powerhouse. Check.
NORTHWESTERN. They rejected my application, so even though they made the cut in 2017 for the first time ever—just, no.
SETON HALL. How could I not endorse the college just down the road?
UCLA. I love California, so of course!
SYRACUSE. Wait…where is Syracuse, my alma mater, a perennial basketball favorite? Not this year, the boy explains. I’m so sad (nevermind that I didn’t attend a single game my entire four years there; sorry, Jim Boeheim.)
My son grimaces and shoots me bemused looks. Sometimes, I get lucky (one year Gonzaga surprised people!), but mostly my picks fall off away quickly. But that’s okay. Because you see, I cheat. I print out a blank bracket and begin again, and I have a much higher percentage the second (or third) time!
Our bracket madness is something to talk about every day for a few weeks, something that doesn’t really matter. Not like the talks this kid and I have had about grades, academic repercussions, and the unfortunate consequences of procrastination, denial, and lack of advance planning.
As my son approached and then slid into adulthood (age-wise, anyway), and I learned the limits of parental influence—and the heartache of allowing him to sink not swim, hoping it might impart life lessons—conversations pivoted on too many BIG ISSUES. Ones I worried mattered and would determine the course of his life. Ones he saw as minor blips he’d worry about someday.
Keeping an eye on one another’s March Madness brackets is a place removed from all of that, an arena where we play, joke, and track results that don’t matter. Nothing is at stake. When we’re choosing teams, when we’re boasting or complaining, I’m not judging or correcting him, and he’s not shutting down and ignoring me. We’re having fun together. For three or so weeks, he gets to explain things to me I never knew to wonder about, he helps me navigate undecipherable terrain.
My son watches most games and reports results, peering at my bracket with chagrin. As preliminary games conclude, and the stakes rise, I duck in for the final five minutes of games. We both love the anything-can-happen aspect: underdogs sink mid-court buzzer shots, coaches go ballistic, fans dissemble.
And in that same category, over the five years, in typical sports-crazed fashion, my son went from a casual bracketer to a serious contender. In 2016, on a popular sports website, his bracket had a 97 percent score going into the championship.
Me? Not so much. I’m awful at it, and that’s okay. Watching him laugh hysterically when even my cribbed, redone, cheating bracket fails (and why wouldn’t it, with picks based on things like, “Oh, Marquette, I like French, I’ll pick them!”) is a kind of shared madness I love.
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Lisa Romeo is a former equestrian journalist who now teaches in a graduate writing program. Her nonfiction is listed in the Notables section of Best American Essays 2016, has appeared in many places, including the New York Times, O The Oprah Magazine, Purple Clover, Brevity, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Victoria, Brain Child, Skirt. She lives in NJ with her husband and two sons. Find her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest.