Monday, December 25, 2017

Dec 25: Ander Monson: On Paying Attention

On Paying Attention

Ander Monson


There’s a reason why we call it paying attention. Obviously you, like me, have found some time for this little attention to another’s work (otherwise why would you be here?). I bet your life is pretty full, or feels that way anyway until you add some more to it. You may view these moments—moments spent looking over another reader’s shoulder into the way they read and how it opened them—as stolen. Perhaps they are. They are (probably) unpaid and largely unrewarded, though not to say unnoticed. I wonder: if we spent as much time with another’s work—it doesn’t matter whose—as we spend on social media, imagine how that might open us?

One of the things I love about the Essay Daily Advent Calendar, which is also one of the things I love about the site and its ethos in general, and to some extent all editorial work, is how by virtue of doing that work you learn (or I hope you learn: I have; I keep learning) that the act of spending time engaged one-on-one with another’s work changes you. In a small way, sure. I’ll take that. I mean, it's (probably) not life-altering, or doesn't seem so yet, or at least if it has altered your life you may not have noticed it.

And that work—the reading, but exponentially more than that if you do it as a practice and in a teaching or an editorial role—is a devotion: you know it well if you read slush for a magazine or help screen for one of the Best American series, or if you put time into designing an online journal or even reading stories for an undergraduate magazine. It’s a little different if you’re paid, because then it becomes a job, something you’re compensated for, and that’s not bad—in fact, it’s good, but it’s something different than I’m talking about here. (And honestly, you and I both know that even if it is paid, it's never paid enough.) We should all be paid for the time we spend with others’ work, but I’d like to argue for that work as worth doing in itself, even if you’re not paid for it (because let’s face it, you probably won’t be; maybe it's just easier to understand how it works this way).

I mean to say that that time I spent galleying up an Advent post, or tweaking curly quotes in an essay I'm trying to lay out for DIAGRAM, or even printing out and posting a poem on a bathroom wall at work somewhere—I mean to say it is important for what it does to us as humans and how we relate to our own language and material and stories, and how it changes our perception of what our work is worth, and in what context, and to whom (and excluding or not thinking about whom) we’re writing. Or maybe whom we want to be writing with or alongside of.

I do a lot of this (so maybe in some ways this is my own self-justification I'm working on for the light I spend this way). I read manuscripts for this site, and another called (this year) March Shredness, and another, called DIAGRAM, and another, New Michigan Press. It’s been a part of my practice as a writer as long as I’ve been a writer, this editorial work, the work of design, whether digital or letterpress. It's always been happening alongside whatever "writing" I was working on (as if writing isn't basically just design, arrangement of familiar glyphs). It’s all the same in the way that I’m subsumed by it (or I am when it is working well: it’s a sticky space in which I find myself, one that I’d like to stay in as long as I am able). It rewards me sometimes by putting me in communication with another mind and another's body.

Still, I find myself wondering about the time I spend on it some months, whether that would be better used in finishing up an essay or a book or starting something new. But then often enough I’m sparked by a thing I’m reading in an editorial capacity and with that input I start thinking differently. This is the self-fueling feeling that makes me happiest, though I should be honest and state that it’s pretty rare.

Yet I have two irritations I would like to report: writers who don’t tell you that the work they sent you, and that you’ve spent weeks or even months thinking about, and eventually accepting (or even kindly declining), was simultaneously submitted and has been accepted somewhere else. It’s a gutting feeling, out of proportion to the size of the offense (which is micro, one of bookkeeping, largely, if we’re being generous), but it’s a tough mood to be in, to be informed that the essay or poem or story you fought for against a bunch of other editors and readers and pulled out of a stack of unbrilliant work is now, after long conversations, no longer fucking available?

Two, and this is worse, and more specific. Every once in a while, maybe once every couple years, at the magazine I edit, DIAGRAM, I get an email from a former contributor asking us to unpublish some work of theirs we’ve published, typically years ago. They seem mystified by my unwillingness to do so, even when I explain clearly and as passionless as I can that even asking that devalues all of the work that every editor does, and particularly every editor of every online magazine who’s had to justify what they do to coworkers or friends or writers or readers or in grant applications, or for tenure committees, etc. A mighty fury arises in me when this happens, and I try to quell it, and usually there’s some reasonable workaround that can be achieved, like changing the name of the writer to just their initials (thus making them ungoogleable and effectively disconnecting it from their online presence, which serves what they’d like it to but doesn’t totally undermine the ethos of our [or any publishing] project).

(Please don't ask me this: changing your name, however, is just fine.)

I also have a third irritation, a little pettier than the last, I should admit, and it comes out of the genre of articles (or essays or pieces or blog posts) that insists on the value of what the writer has to contribute, and demands to get paid for their work. It's unfair of me to complain, I know. I also like to get paid for my work, and sometimes I do, and it’s easier to prioritize those projects that pay over the other projects that are in the stew somewhere in my life. So that’s a virtue, but I think it’s a mistake to only value what we’re paid to do, or to equate getting paid with the value of pursuing a thing.

It’s definitely true that the things for which I am paid do not always correlate with the things that feel most alive or important to me. There’s something in making a thing—or a space for others to send to and display their things and get them in front of other people who might like such things—that’s valuable. Or I hope it is. I believe it is.

I guess in spending time with others’ work in part I lose myself to it, and for an essayist especially, someone for whom the trade in I is easy to get caught up in, that’s a welcome reminder of why I’m here. It’s not just to assert my I or eye, as much as I like to, and to give it a voice, but also to make a space for others’ voices too, and to do what I can to get them in front of you and make them more beautiful when they are displayed.

I don’t mean to be self-aggrandizing here: it’s all work, and some of it sometimes pays, and getting paid is helpful and important, and I’m aware too that I’m writing from a position of some privilege. So maybe some aspect of spend some portion of that privilege is in devoting time to others’ work. It’s why, in part, I get frustrated when Big Name Writers I know refuse to blurb anyone’s work. As if you, sirs, were never blurbed! I know you can’t blurb everything, and maybe it’s just a pose you strike as a defense or because you think my work blows (fair enough if so: well played), but it still feels indefensible to me. A kindness (or an openness to kindness) has some benefits to the self, or the boundaries of what you perceive as the self.

Sarah Manguso says that “Those who claim to write about something larger and more significant than the self sometimes fail to comprehend the dimensions of a self.” I wouldn’t even freaking know this if I hadn’t paid attention to her work and let it inside the dimensions of what I thought constituted myself. Now myself includes a bit of Sarah Manguso, and I can use that Manguso bit like a tool.

I’m reminded of this every December when we do our advent calendar, which takes really rather a lot of editorial work (thanks particularly this year to Will, and thanks to Craig, who has pulled plenty of his weight in the past), and when we’re also publishing the attentions you pay to those other writers whose work has moved you. If they’re dead, or will never read it, that’s fine. It’s not about the attention that you pay to the living (though that is for sure particularly nice, since it can echo back a little more easily), but the act of paying attention, and writing about, and writing to and around and toward, that matters. I am trying to say thanks to the writers who have contributed to the calendar this year, and to the site in general. It's been a pleasure to spend time with your sentences and the trails of your thinking this year. But also I want to thank those of us who devote our unpaid and dwindling and precious time to others’ work and words.

I mean to say thanks to my editors at Graywolf, particularly Katie Dublinski and Jeff Shotts. (Bonus thanks to Katie, who is, it would seem, perfectly happy to do her work below the radar: I see you and what you mean to that list, and to my own work as a writer and reader). You’re paid, but not enough, and not always in the ways that matter. I mean to say thanks to the editors who’ve nurtured my work in the past, like Brigid Hughes at A Public Space, and the editors who just read something and thought, sure, fuck it, why not. Josh Foster at Gulf Coast, Christopher Chambers at New Orleans Review, R. M. Kinder at Pleiades (who published my first thing ever), Bob Atwan at Best American Essays, Jake Adam York at Copper Nickel (even though you never published me I know you spent serious time on my work, and I on yours, and I want to keep saying thanks for both that attention you paid and for the work you made), and this is just off the top of my head. I’m sure I’ll think of many more than this to regret not thanking later. Those editors who thought to ask if I wanted to send them something: Kristen Radtke, Valerie Vogrin, Nicole Walker, T Fleischmann, Beth Staples. Gotta stop since I can only name a few. The list is pretty long and I do not want to bore.

And of course what I mean to say is also to thank those of you who lurk in this space and read and write for us or just read and write us at all. I saw a note on some motivational board for the writing program at my university that read something like: I write because in so doing I can exist after my death. Yes to that. It doesn’t work equally for all of us, but it’s better than your other options. And also you know what helps? Reading and writing back to what you're reading.

I mean: I know that what you do in editing or designing or typesetting uses something up. It's not frictionless: it burns if you’re doing it right. That attention that you pay, the time you spend, there are reasons that we use the language of economics to describe it. It is a kind of reading, and it's finite, and for that I think you. Done well it gets you some little bounce back in your own sensibility of what is possible, and an excitement that you want to follow somewhere new in your own work or some space you’re making or maybe will in a few years. Maybe this sentence or another will do something of the sort for you. Knowing it consumes something of you to do, I want to say: y’all out there reading and editing and designing and typesetting and thinking and writing, I see you. All of us at Essay Daily see you (and hope to see some more of you). Happy holidays to you and yours.


Ander Monson is one of the editors of this site. His most recent book (a book of letters, no less) is Letter to a Future Lover (Graywolf).

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Dec. 24th: Arthur Ashe & the Style We Leave Behind

Arthur Ashe, his feet apart, his knees slightly bent, lifts a tennis ball into the air. The toss is high and forward. If the ball were allowed to drop, it would, in Ashe’s words, “make a parabola and drop to the grass three feet in front of the baseline.” He has practiced tossing a tennis ball just so thousands of times. But he is going to hit this one.

So starts John McPhee’s Levels of the Game, which the New York Times once called “perhaps the high point of American sports journalism” – and yet, I’d never heard of it until it was gifted to me by an older, ultra-cool sports editor; a man I admired, and who just this past week, died.

I never read it -- but Bud’s death finally corrected this.

Essay Daily's Advent Calendar has the theme of “Recovery” this year, and I suppose this book qualifies, since I found it fantastic and it has been forgotten. But one might ask: Why do we need extra focus right now on a book about sports from a well-known white male author? To which I’d say:

Good question! Here is why: Sports is more popular than ever, and there is more sports content than ever in our odd world (you could easily spend 24-hours a day watching sports, reading sports blogs, watching shows about sports -- and it seems many aspire to do just that). 

And yet, so much sports writing is of the moment and nothing more – each daily post, each daily game, absorbs the watcher for a moment, then recedes from the mind – the surf going in and out, leaving no meaningful trace (except for a slow, dull wearing down of the surface upon which it washes; a pacified, dulled brain).

Total Sports Saturation, alas, isn’t going anywhere anytime soon – so, hey, why not actually understand something about what sport means culturally, artistically, to us?

That’s why good, classic sports writing is important -- and sometimes really relevant, too. Levels of the Game has so much to say to us right now. It chronicles a single tennis game in 1968, at an especially fraught time (this was just two months after MLK's assassination).  

It's an epic match between the black, liberal Arthur Ashe and the white, Republican Clark Graebner. It’s to the book's credit that neither comes across as a cliché, neither inspires pure hatred or admiration, both are fully human. And yet, on Arthur Ashe's desk sat the biography of Malcom X; on Graebner's desk was a personally autographed Nixon photo. There's a lot of subtext in this book, okay?

But really, the main reason this book needs to be recovered is because Bud gave it to me; Bud, the man who was 40 years older than me, yet still always seemed a step ahead (and forty steps higher in just plain, real “coolness”) – but also, the man who always treated me like a friend.

Bud died last week -- and I have to face it.


I've tried to write about Bud -- but each time, I compose thousands of words (and Bud, as a lifelong editor, would never tolerate that). So for now, I'll just say that he was truly the most sophisticated man I've ever met -- but also one of the most generous, too. And I don't think those two qualities overlap all that often. 

That's a very small subsection in humanity's Venn diagram.

Robert "Bud" Armstrong worked the night sports desk at the Minneapolis Star Tribune for over four decades, and he knew everything about the four "major" sports, but knew even more about tennis, the WNBA, yachting, fencing... and long before following European football was fashionable, he gave me a George Best shirt.

The man owned 10,000+ records and 2,500+ CD's (and as his daughter recently wrote, his tastes ranged from "Taylor Swift to Miles Davis to Brahms"). And I guarantee that every damn piece of music was purchased locally from a human he knew by name (Patrick Reusse, the famous Minneapolis columnist, recently joked that The Electric Fetus record store might now go out of business with Bud’s demise). Feasts cooked by Bud rivaled anything at local, fashionable restaurants -- but he knew all the chefs at those restaurants by name, too. And in the realm of capital-L Literature? Well, he'd already read every book you had, and then a few more -- but he only used this to help guide you somewhere (he gave me so many books).

BUT HERE'S THE THING: He wasn't this mythical man on a pedestal. He was just a nice, older guy I met one night at a bar -- after I'd finished up my shift as a box office worker at the Jungle Theatre.


Early in John McPhee’s legendary tenure with the New Yorker, he yearned to write a dual profile – something about, maybe, a choreographer and a dancer? That was an initial idea. 

Then, while watching TV one night, he saw the semi-finals match between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner at the first ever U.S. Open, and knew he’d landed his subject. McPhee managed to get a tape of the game from CBS (just one day before they erased it, as per their policy). And then, McPhee sat down with Ashe and Graebner individually, and they told him what they were thinking throughout the match.

This means that the reader, while getting blow-by-blow accounts of the game, also gets to dive into the minds of the dual protagonists in a way you’d only ever see in sports fiction, yielding great interior insights like:

Ashe hits a flat serve to Graebner's forehand, and Graebner drives the ball down the line for an outright winner. Fifteen-thirty... He may be winning the set right here. Ashe says to himself, "You can't relax, Arthur. Every point has a hell of a premium on it now." He lifts the ball, whips up his racquet, and cracks a serve into the deep outside corner. Graebner barely touches it. Ashe is thinking, "That was a crucial serve, a crucial serve. If I hadn't won that point right there, I could have been in deep trouble." He hits two more that Graebner can't handle -- in all, three unplayable serves. Graebner pauses and joins in the crowd's applause, clapping for Ashe, acknowledging what he has done. "He hit it so hard, so fast. There's nothing you can do about that," Graebner tells himself. 

Ultimately, though, it’s the mythological might of this faceoff – which must’ve made McPhee’s writer-mind metaphorically drool when first watching the match – that lends the text its lasting power. 

Ashe was a pioneer in his sport much the way Jackie Robinson was earlier in the century (Dr. Robert Johnson, Ashe's mentor, often "read sports columns in which the idea was advanced that Negro athletes lacked finesse -- that they might be good runners or jumpers but could never make it in a game like tennis") -- and, in fact, Jackie Robinson was Ashe’s main hero. 

The match happened right in the middle of America’s churning, emergent civil rights movement -- way back when sports wasn’t exempt from politics (much like, suddenly, right now): John Carlos and Tommie
Smith's famous Black Power protest at the Olympics would happen just a few months after this match. And Ashe himself felt torn -- he comes across as a complicated intellectual, with great long quotes where he goes back and forth, not yet comfortable with the idea of being an icon, a leader; he wants progress but is awkward, anti-militant...

And listen, I know this part is long, but understand: This is one of the first black sports stars in U.S. history, free-form speaking his own words, trying to find his way in real time:

"Anything I can do to help the cause is good. Nobody listens to a loser. If I put myself in a position where I can't compete, I am merely a martyr. We don't need any more martyrs right now. One must separate the emotional from the practical... a little bit is better than nothing... Progress and improvement do not come in big hunks, they come in little pieces... I wouldn't tell my son to content himself that things will come gradually. You've got to push... But when you know it's not going to come, don't give up... We'll advance by quiet negotiation and slow infiltration -- and by objective, well-planned education, not an education in which you're brainwashed. Education reflects a culture's values. If that culture is warped, you get a warped education, with white Janes and Dicks in the schoolbooks and white pale-faced guys who made history. There are so many insidious ways you can get brainwashed to think white equals good -- white Howdy Doody, white Captain Kangaroo. I didn't feel like a crusader once. I do now... But in the spirit of the times -- in some people's eyes -- I'm an Uncle Tom..."

Combine this charged atmosphere with McPhee’s research, and you get astounding discursions; in the middle of casually talking about how Ashe likes to travel, a paragraph seamlessly transitions this way:

Tennis is not, in any traditional sense, a game to him. "I get my kicks away from the tennis court," he will say. With accumulated leave time, he plans to go on safari in Kenya. It will be his first trip to Africa. In 1735, the Doddington, a square-rigger of eighty tons and Liverpool registry, sailed into the York River in Virginia carrying a cargo of a hundred and sixty-seven West African blacks. In or near Yorktown, the ship's captain, James Copland, traded the blacks for tobacco. One young woman, known only by a number, was acquired by Robert Blackwell, a tobacco grower from Lunenburg County. Blackwell gave her to his son as a wedding present -- in the records of the county, she was listed only as "a Negur girl." According to custom, she took the name of her owner. She married a man who, having the same owner, was also named Blackwell, and they had a daughter, Lucy, whose value is given in her owner's will at fifty dollars. Lucy Blackwell married Moses Blackwell, and their daughter Peggy Blackwell had a daughter named Peggy Blackwell, who married her cousin Tony Blackwell. Their daughter Jinney married Mike, an otherwise nameless Indian of the Sauk tribe who was a blood relative of Chief Black Hawk. The preacher who married them told Mike to call himself Mike Blackwell forevermore. Jinney and Mike had a son named Hammet, who, in this chain of beings, was the last slave. Hammett was born in 1839. In 1856, he married Julia Tucker. They had twenty-three children. When he became free, he should have been give forty acres and a mule, of course, but no one gave them to him, so he bought his forty acres, in Dundas, Virginia. On the Blackwell plantation, where Hammett had lived, the plantation house -- white frame, with columns -- still stands, vacant and moldering. The slave cabin is there, too, its roof half peeled away. Hammett's daughter Sadie married Willie Johnson, and their daughter Amelia married Pinkney Avery Ashe. His family line reached back, in analogous fashion, to the ownership of Samuel Ashe, an early governor of the State of North Carolina, whose name, until now, has been kept alive largely by the continuing existence of Asheville. Pinkney and Amelia had a son named Arthur, who, in 1938, married Mattie Cunningham, of Richmond. Their son Arthur Junior was born in 1943.

And finally, we're back to our main subject! 

But all that info, we learn, comes from Ashe’s aunt who has oil-painted a well-researched, literal family tree upon a huge canvas. Meanwhile, the proud, Tuetonic Graebner "has no idea whatever when his forebears first came to this country" (though, again, Graebner is a fully realized human here, with great bits on his suburban background).

But seriously: When was the last time you read a profile, much less a sports profile, that just lays out the subject’s deep history like that. 

“One young woman, known only by number, was acquired by Robert Blackwell... Blackwell gave her to his son as a wedding present... She married... and they had a daughter, Lucy, whose value is given in her owner's will at fifty dollars..." 

Stated as plainly as any other fact in the book, it puts America’s Origin Sin right there on the court with Ashe and Graebner. It’s so smoothly insinuated into the text that it barely comes across as political – it just comes across as (again) exactly what it is: a fact. 

The simple, shocking fact that the all of the accumulated past moments have led to the present. To the present moment, in this case, of this match – which suddenly takes on Shakespearean importance for the reader.

Though none of that would matter if the writing itself wasn’t so strong. But it is. And I’ll get back to that (you’ll really love some of these sentences).


I can’t actually recall my first meeting Bud, but I can be confident it went something like this: I spied a casually cool-looking older dude sitting at the bar (and most likely, I was subconsciously jealous of a cool, classic hat or coat or something he was wearing; because he was pulling it off in a non-pretentious way, in a way I never could now or then). 

Andrew, JP Bistro's great bartender, would’ve introduced us – and then, Bud and I joked about matters high and low for about two hours, long after close; I’m sure I tried to buy him a drink and he refused, and I'm sure he tried to buy me a drink, and I refused, and then: Andrew probably comped us both and sat down to drink a bit himself.

This soon became a Wednesday night ritual – and the absolute highlight of my week. Bud and Andrew and I, along with my fellow box office worker (and best friend) Allan -- us youngsters languishing at the bar long after close, chatting the night away with this great guy.

All the lights off in the restaurant, just ghostlights glowing behind the bottles; and meanwhile, we’d be eating and drinking special items we’d brought for “Bud Fest” (our secret name for the evening, though Bud never knew we called it that; he would've humbly hated it): nights of endless charcuterie, cheeses, spirits. 

Bud always brought the best stuff – fine whiskey and rare Chartreuse were his special favorites. 

These meetings eventually migrated to Bud’s home turf, where we finally met Annie, his amazing wife (another one of the most singular, cool humans I’ve ever encountered, and a fellow traveler with Bud for about a half a century, seeing him through two heart attacks and lord knows what else, while she worked as a great, local television producer; if I could conjure the joie de vivre those two seemed to find, after even a five years with someone, I’d be eternally grateful).

At his house, Bud would bring out something like Cassoulet or strange, scrumptious rabbit, along with fine, free-flowing wine, and then – who knows?

One night, we sat in his study watching a favorite sports documentary (Fire & Ice), while we males all got misty, secretly, side by side, surreptitiously wiping our eyes in unison as Bud flicked the lights back on. 

Another night, he led us to an odd back cabinet filled with about 200 different colognes. Boozy and brazenly, we tried out endless varieties for laughs – and then Bud sent us all home with several bottles of signature scents; cologne seemed so olde-timey to me, but with Bud, it was elegant. He’d found most of them, of course, at a small specialty shop in France. But let’s rewind:

At first, Bud was just coming by a bar after work, after putting the paper to bed – and he didn’t give a shit about our status, Andrew or Allan or I. He was a well-respected, longtime editor, while we were: one slick bartender and two would-be writers working in a box office. 

He just loved good conversation, regardless the source; a very witty dude who was, even more, a world class listener.

"I wanted to work on the desk, not write." When he first applied for a job at the Tribune, he was selected from a huge class of applicants because he actually wanted to edit and not write. The man had so many interesting thoughts to share, but he loved, even more, facilitating the flow of other minds. "Every other applicant wanted to write. I had no such ambitions."

He loved words – but unlike most us, he loved others' words even more than his own.


Speaking of word makers, McPhee always seemed to me like quinoa or kale: probably healthy, but obviously boring – though, maybe, you could imagine developing a taste for the stuff over time? So I avoided all of the above. But, of course, I’ve now ingested a lot of kale and quinoa, and now, after finally reading Levels of the Game, I admire McPhee, too.

He needs no extra accolades, so let me just give you some great sentences – though I should say: I now know why I thought he was boring, and I also know why he's not. 

He plays rope-a-dope with the reader. Or, to switch sports analogies, he’s like one of those seemingly-slow point guards who somehow keeps blowing past defenders when they least expect it. He builds sentences, paragraphs, slowly, competently, factually – and then makes some great, slick move that sinks in, seconds after he’s delivered it.

For example, in a few brief sentences, he factually/humorously  describes the autographs of these two famous players -- but doesn't this tell you something:

Ashe's signature -- "Arthur R. Ashe, Jr." -- is about halfway between bold and timid, and well within the sub-Hancock zone. Graebner's signature, full of sweep and dash, is pi Hancock squared. The "G" is two and a quarter inches high.

McPhee's prose is plain, but bigger words are swirled in rarely yet perfectly. How about this little description of the expensive homes in Graebner's affluent suburb:

They are faced with stratified rock, lightened with big windows, surrounded with shrubbery, and lined up in propinquous ranks like yachts at a pier.

Or here's McPhee describing Graebner's dentist father (the man is excessively polite, asking his guests endless questions -- but then, before they can answer, he answers the questions himself):

After thirty years of close contact with temporarily muted people, he has mastered the histrionisms of his craft. He winks, interviews himself, speaks always reassuringly, and couples his skeins of language with "but"s and "and"s, never stopping.

Mostly, though, it's the endless, plain, propulsive paragraphs that power a reader through this book. You feel as if you're at the match, and also, like you (suddenly!) intimately know the main men involved. At a crucial moment in the game, McPhee jarringly pauses to talk about Ashe at a party --  a man still uniquely himself, but newly dealing with celebrity:

Ace. Game to Ashe. He leads, three games to two. Coming into a room -- any room, anywhere -- the first thing Ashe says is "What's happening?" When he ends a conversation, he says, "Well, it's been nice talking to you." These are the frames of his relationships with other people -- these expressions, and a habit he has of wearing sunglasses indoors. They keep the world at one remove. The sunglasses are uneroded bits of the shield...


Bud finally retired and moved on (his retirement magnificently chronicled in his paper).

And Andrew quit JP’s, moved on to a new bar.

And Allan quit the box office, moved on to New York.

And we all tried to stay in touch, to have a “Bud Fest” whenever our stars, or travel schedules, aligned. But it happened rarely.

And when I finally quit the box office and started producing theatre shows of my own, Bud and Annie were always in the audience. And when I moved on to Arizona for grad school, it was another gift from Bud -- the complete set of Richard Pryor stand-up CD’s -- that got me through that insane, cross-country drive. And when I finally wrote a breakout sportswriting piece of my own, hearing that Bud gave his approval meant more than any of the awards.

Bud gave me a lot, obviously (booze, books, CDs, DVDs, cologne, cheese), but mostly: 

He gave me insight on a certain way to be a man. Or just a human, moving through the world. You could be super into sports and art and politics and food, etc.; these things didn’t conflict – they combined for a full life. You could be an aesthete but it could be earthy, fun – not pretentious.

BUT ALSO: You had to take responsibility for your actions. His morality wasn’t conventional, I don’t think, it was his own – but it was strict.

I’ll never forget one ghostlit night in JP’s: 

Bud told us a complicated story from his past – something he still felt guilty about (I won’t reveal it here, but if I could, it wouldn’t seem nefarious; it’d seem like a tough, classic choice from great literature, such was his life). And Andrew kindly said, “Bud, that was decades ago. You don’t have to carry around that guilt anymore.” But Bud hadn’t told the story to unburden himself; he looked at Andrew squarely, and at Allan and I, too – then said something I’ll never shake:

“No. Some things you do carry. Some things you should carry around. I'll always carry this.”

Until now, I guess.

I tried to stay in touch, but I really wasn’t the greatest correspondent while in Arizona. And so, when Annie kindly emailed me about Bud being in the hospital, and then when I found out he died soon afterward… I felt lucky to get back to Minnesota in time for the memorial.

But then, there, I learned something troubling. 

Bud always made me feel so special – but I wasn’t that special.


Ashe’s special style of playing, his unique flair forced upon opponents – that’s the true star of Levels of the Game. His flourish animates the text; and maybe the best description comes from his opponent, Graebner, who (I think) was trying to be disparaging:

"He plays the game with the lacksadaisical, haphazard mannerisms of a liberal. He's an underprivileged type who worked his way up. His family are fine people, but.... There's something about him that is swashbuckling, loose. He plays the way he thinks.... He comes on the court and he's tight for a while, then he hits a few good shots and he feels the power to surge ahead. He gets looser and more liberal with the shots he tries, and pretty soon he is hitting shots everywhere. He does not play percentage tennis. Nobody in his right mind, really, would try those little dink shots he tries as often as he does... He plays to shoot his wad. He hits the ball so hard that it's an outright winner or he misses the shot." 

This is one of the book’s main dramas: Ashe is so good, he could just play it safe—but just he can’t; that's not his nature. 

He's always attempting harder shots than necessary, sometimes to his own detriment; but the man just can’t help himself; or rather, he has to be himself, trying for special shots (forget the percentages!) as the moment hits him.

Ashe, yes, comes across like an artist. He has to go with the flow -- impossible shot or no -- right to the end. To the end of the match, and the end of the book:

"Match point," Ashe tells himself. "Now I'll definitely play it safe." But Graebner hits the big serve into the net, then hits his second serve to Ashe's backhand. The game and the match are spinning into perfect range. Ashe's racquet is back. The temptation is just too great, and caution fades. He hits it for all. Game, set, match to Lieutenant Ashe. When the stroke is finished, he is standing on his toes, his arms flung open, wide, and high.


Bud would (quite rightly) be mad if I compared him to Arthur Ashe here; Bud loved bold pioneers like Ashe, and never would’ve tolerated (on an editorial, literary level, just to start) a comparison between a white, night desk editor and a black, boundary-breaking sports star.

So I won’t do Ashe, nor Bud, the disservice of suggesting such a thing.

But I will say: McPhee might be right when he writes, “A person’s tennis game begins with his nature and background and comes out through his motor mechanisms and characteristics of play. If he is deliberate, he is a deliberate tennis player; and if he is flamboyant, his game probably is, too.” Going further, a person’s expression of themselves in their job, in public in general, even just around friends – perhaps it expresses something about that person’s deeper nature.

And, it seems, Bud was expressing this interior nature all the damn time.

This is how I learned I wasn’t special.

At the memorial, so many other people had stories about Bud just like my own -- only they only they knew him much, much longer that I. 

An editor talked of how Bud took her under his wing at the paper, and was soon invited to he and Annie’s house, and then (as always) a ritual arose: They’d hunt forests for morel mushrooms at a specific time every year – and one year, they found the precious specimens at a graveyard. So there and then, after gathering the precious fungi, a blanket was spread on the ground – and the requisite ritual cheese and wine were brought forth from the picnic basket. She asked if it was okay to do this here, in a graveyard… but Bud just gestured expansively, saying, “They like it!” 

Who’s to say he was wrong? I’m sure Bud -- if there is still a “Bud” -- would appreciate the same at his grave site, right now.

So many stories of him making things special, making little thing into rituals. I met chefs to whom he brought special ingredients (which the chefs used to prepare Bud and his companions’ dinner, but the remaining ingredients were just generally given to the restaurant, to benefit future patrons). 

One woman said, “He was only guy I could talk to about the WNBA.” Or then, there was another prominent Twin Cities sports writer who simply stated, “He was my newspaper dad.”

No, I wasn’t that special. Whenever Bud listened to me, I felt uniquely important. But, it turns out, he made a lot of people feel this way. I wasn't special.

Except, of course, I was. Whenever Bud listened, and even more, whenever Bud JOKED with you, you really were special.

That’s the most inadequate part of this reminiscence – it’s not funny! And Bud was funny! He'd be so peeved at the lack of humor here!


Yet, despite my misstep, you really should read Levels of the Game.

We’re in a new era of athlete protests, a new era of the sports world expressing the racial problems inherent in every vein of our society, and Levels of the Game is a great place to start – to just dip one’s toes into the topic of the very odd fact that most of our sports involve a mostly white audience watching a sport populated mostly by “minorities.” Levels of the Game is a good starting point; it doesn’t shove much in your face. It’s enjoyable all on its own – but the parts of modern sports one might rather not acknowledge? They’re there, too, plain as day.

The new ESPN podcast about the Heatles Hoodie photo, following Trayvon Martin's death -- that  might be an even better place to start; or you could just read Wesley Morris, in general (starting here); or you could try out David Shields' Black Planet, another personal favorite (and soon to be a major motion picture). 

Of course, no one (thank god!) comes to me for a reading list on black politics in sports. 

Again, just to be clear, Colin Kaepernick has never contacted me for book club suggestions (though you should know this fun fact: one of the main academics that advised John Carlos and Tommie Smith, before their famous Black Power protest, also advised Kaepernick about his much more recent protests; yes, all this stuff connects!)

Regardless: Levels of the Game could be your jumping off point for politics in American sports, or it could just be a one-off fun read. It works well either way – and for me, I think it’s both.


Arthur Ashe, the ultimate hero of the book, died in 1993 from AIDS-related complications. A cerebral, complicated hero to the very end, his body laid in state at the New York Governor’s mansion as over 5000 other humans filed past his casket.

Now, he’s usually eulogized with his most inspirational, meme-ready quotes: “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” “Success is a journey, not a destination. The doing is often more important than the outcome.”

And it’s not that those statement aren’t true – it’s just that Ashe wasn’t a walking Successories poster. In Levels of the Game, and then in Ashe’s own autobiography Days of Grace, and in later profiles, he's a much more complicated man. A man in full, full of quirks and faults and all the more inspiring for it.

Maybe that last McPhee line wouldn’t be a bad tombstone inscription for the elegant, forceful man:  

He is standing on his toes, his arms flung open, wide, and high.

If there were an afterlife, wouldn’t that be a great way to ascend? I’d certainly like to think of Bud exiting upward that way. That does seem to be how he lived:

His arms flung open, wide, and high.

But now, I know I've really gone too far.


That’s the strangest part: I can’t joke with Bud about any of this!

He’d have some kind – but hilariously cutting – things to say about this eulogy. He’d correct me on some facts, and maybe suggest I probably shouldn’t be penning this late at night. Hell, he'd find a lot to cut out of this (and it'd be edited for the better).

But then, we’d laugh about it and share a glass of wine. 

Undoubtedly, he’d have bought the wine, and undoubtedly, it’d be great. And I’d probably just say something like: Thanks. 


Dave Mondy's work has been honored in many genres (most recently as "Notable" in Best American Essays 2017 and 2015): His literary sportswriting was selected as part of the 2014 Iowa Review Prize and recently appeared in the Cincinnati Review and Slate; his food writing appears in Best Food Writing 2015; his travel writing garnered four national Solas Awards; his memoir and humor writing, in addition to appearing in many literary magazines, can also be heard on various public radio programs, including Prairie Home Companion, as well live onstage as part of nationally toured solo shows. Currently, he is a Lecturer in Creative Writing and Composition and the University of Arizona, where he received his MFA in Creative Nonfiction in 2013. He is currently working on a book about the stories behind famous sports photos.

You can read about about another sports book Dave loves, which appears in the recent Essay Daily collection published by Coffee House Press here.

You can read more about Allan and Andrew and Dave in a recent Best American Essays 2017 notable selection here.

You can read about the first essay he hoped Bud liked (a Best American 2015 notable and an Iowa Review contest winner) here.

And you can read his Christmas Eve entry from last year's Advent Calendar here, or from New Year's Eve here.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Dec 23, Craig Reinbold & Douglas Coupland's THE GERMAN REPORTER

Feels weird dropping a writer with 479K Twitter followers into this “recovery” mix, but here I am, because seriously, has anyone actually read @dougcoupland’s essays? Maybe not.

Admission: I’ve only read “The German Reporter” once, and that was years ago. I’ve never felt a need to read it again, though I’ve thought about it often. And I avoided rereading it before writing this because the point is I don’t care about the finer points of this essay at all. 

Caveat: Also, I’m not really comfortable saying this is a great essay. It’s good, I think, but, well, there’s this: I feel like I’ve read everything Douglas Coupland has written, but looking at his bibliography it seems I’ve actually only read about 10 years of his stuff, 1991-2001, which makes sense since I read Generation X just after 9/11 and then went on to read everything of his I could find. I’ve read his ’98 novel Girlfriend in a Coma three times. It’s the only book I’ve read three times, so maybe it’s my favorite, if we believe in favorites, which I don’t really. I do believe in resonance. 

So, not great, but this essay resonates. 

The gist, as I recall: A reporter, presumably German, travels across the world to interview Coupland. They hang out for a few days, and a weird, low-key intimacy develops between them. Actually, it’s not weird at all. It’s just…unexpected. They hang out in Coupland’s childhood neighborhood, have dinner with his old friends, and go to a record shop. They get nostalgic and talk about youth and innocence and aging. They take long walks. At one point, Coupland recounts writing a Truman Capote quote on the guy’s chest and talks about how the Sharpie ink seeped through his t-shirt onto his skin, and he hoped it passed into his bloodstream, and from there, his heart. Is it just me? This amorous, jonesing vibe? 

I used to do a lot of interviews. Nothing as dreamy as interviewing wunderkind Coupland, but interviews nonetheless. Years ago, I traveled around the country interviewing veterans to get an idea of how they were coping as they returned to civilian life. A plane to D.C. to spend an evening with an infantryman now organizing for the Socialists. A Greyhound to Atlanta to have dinner with a woman who at 24 led a caravan of 40 cargo trucks from Kuwait to Baghdad and back every day, every day, for seven months. A drive to Chicago's south side to meet an Army nurse who was stationed at Abu Ghraib—we spent the afternoon talking in her living room. A rental car to Minneapolis. Two trips to Indianapolis. A 15-hour drive to Wilmington, NC, to spend two hours with a Marine who went through a tub of vodka while we talked in his upstairs office and his mastiff chewed on a cow femur on the floor next to me. The first interview I did—and probably my favorite—was closer, just a 7-mile bike ride to the near suburbs. We met in a coffee shop and ran through three hours talking about his childhood, his neighborhood, his going AWOL, activism, music, movies, what it was like to kill people, and to choose not to kill people, and when we got up to leave there was a definite weirdness, not so much a desire but an instinct to hug him and hold him. Instead, a quick handshake, and then he was off. 

It was like that Modern Love column, about the 36 questions that lead to love, except I’d asked a hundred questions and we’d each had half a dozen cups of coffee and UNKLE’s “Rabbit in Your Headlights” feat. Thom Yorke was playing, and it was amazing. It was totally a moment. But what can you do? If you can’t metaphorically carve a Capote quote into his chest you just shake his hand and let him go, off he goes, and that’s it, though of course you’ll exchange some emails over the next couple of years, because you can’t quite let that feeling go, until finally that original moment’s luster has gone cataracts. And eventually the gem erodes to a pebble, then to just another grain of sand, one among gazillions. 

Many of us here have done interviews, and been interviewed, likely via emails back and forth—everyone at their most erudite, their most articulate, small-talk and tics carefully polished, our sentences as blemish-free as our author photos. But imagine if we actually went and met people, hung out with them, followed them through their day, or their night. Spent time. To be rewarded with unrehearsed answers to improvised questions? To better get to know them, if that’s the goal? At the very least we’d have inserted ourselves into the story, which might be interesting, might be fun. Maybe we’d all fall a little more in love with each other. 

Inevitably: I just reread the essay and now there’s egg everywhere. Seems I totally misremembered it, or more like I’d done that false memory thing where we can 100% visualize our childhood home from 42nd Street, with its red and white cedar shake façade and flaking porch and banging screen door—except that we grew up on 66th Street. 

Turns out this essay isn’t about interviewing, and intimacy, and these two guys coming together, briefly, and experiencing something profound. There probably was an actual reporter, and it’s still as much of a love story as I remembered, but the German Reporter here is just a schlock, a stand-in for a younger version of the author himself. As if Coupland has taken Capote’s words of wisdom back in time to when he was just starting out and inked that quote on himself. No wonder the moment felt so intimate. 

But, really, so what? Doesn’t really matter, does it? 

Another Coupland favorite of mine is Life After God. Years ago, I came across an interview with him in a random Missouri Review and I swear the woman asking the questions said this was her favorite nonfiction book. So, I’ve always thought of Life After God as nonfiction, and back in the teaching days I added it to a list of n/f books students could choose from, to read and report on. This cool guy, Clint, read it and was enthusiastic, I think, until at the end of his classroom spiel he was, like, But I don’t understand why you had me read a novel...? 

And I was like, What? 

He showed the class, It says FICTION, right here on the back. 

I played nonplussed, but was shaken. All I could think to say was, Oh, well, yeah. But it reads like nonfiction. Right? 

From the vantage of now, again: It doesn’t really matter. Does it? 

Clint was about to graduate and had tentative plans to move to Paris to join his girlfriend who was living there. I had bounced around the world myself when I was young, mostly following various girlfriends, and I was pretty emphatic I thought this was a great idea. 

But he didn’t go. 

I ran into him months later. He was working in a coffee shop. Thinking about applying to grad school. I wanted to shake him, really hard, like SHAKE him, but I didn’t, because…other people’s lives. But seriously, what happened? Was it fear? Apathy? Could he not see those days of youth tragically numbered? Or maybe he was right on, living effervescently in that barista moment. Maybe he already knew that other, more practical truth: that life’s crispness, its beauty, can be found wherever we are. Every small step a destination. 

Clint, is there any chance you’re reading this? 

From years later, I want to leave you with a souvenir, this white T-shirt. Will you put it on? Then, don’t mind me, I’ll put this thick Sharpie permanent black felt-tip marker to your chest and leave this to soak through the cotton, through your skin, into your bloodstream and, I would hope, into your German Reporter / my-younger-self heart —from one precarious soul to another —

                                                                              As for me
                                                                              I could leave the world
                                                                              with today
                                                                              in my eyes. 
                                                                                     —truman capote 

Craig Reinbold curates this site's Int'l Essayists column and co-edited, with Ander, How We Speak to One Another: An Essay Daily Reader. He works in the ER of a Milwaukee-area hospital, which mostly involves a lot of poop and pee and, occasionally, other bodily fluids. 

Friday, December 22, 2017

Dec 22, Jill Christman on Essays to Pry Open Doors: Ashley C. Ford, Alysia Sawchyn, & Brittany Means

Essays to Pry Open Doors:
Ashley C. Ford, Alysia Sawchyn, & Brittany Means

Jill Christman 


I come from a family of artists, bohemian types, and while this means I heard, saw, and endured things as a young child I likely should not yet have heard, seen, or endured, I also emerged from people who believe in making things. Nobody ever told me I couldn’t do something or say something or make something. This singular freedom—plus crazy love—was the greatest gift of growing up in my decidedly weird family.
     I use this gift. I write essays and memoir and teach writing right smack in the middle of this big country in a state where the map is spilled with red. Over the past twenty years, behind classroom doors that now number in the hundreds, between conversations about form and image and syntax, the most urgent question two decades of students have asked, boils down to this: Can I say this? Really? Can I?
     This semester, I taught an extraordinary group of young writers in an introduction to nonfiction class, and early on, they seemed nervous. I told them a little about my own experience telling true stories and then I asked: How many of you come from a family of artists? No hands went up. Not one. Okay, I said. Okay. This will be different for you. And then I added, because I couldn’t help myself: I’ve never met a secret that did anyone any good.
     So much of telling our stories is finding the permission we need to begin, to say the first word, and then the next, and to keep opening doors—like the eager kid with the Lego advent calendar who just can’t wait—until we get to the door we need to either peek behind or bust the hell out of.  We’ve seen the power of permission, the courage in numbers, in this fall’s #metoo movement, and as I’ve listened to these voices, story after story, I’ve thought: Okay. Yes. You’ve got this. Here we go. And I’ve also thought: This is what we writers get to practice every day. Essays and memoirs have been cracking open closed doors for a long, long time. We have a responsibility here.
     I come from a family of sculptors, painters, and photographers; art collectors, collage artists, and graphic designers. My mother can make anything out of fabric and thread. Seriously, anything. She could sew you an advent calendar with a tiny, plush surprise behind every buttoned door. My children wear flannel nighties with secret messages embroidered inside their collars. If I were to distill my most cherished childhood memories of Christmas to three, they would be: waking up to a Christmas tree shaking with the waving claws of live lobsters (that year, my mother’s boyfriend was a fisherman); touching the donkey’s wondrously long, soft ears in the steam of his warm donkey breath on our annual excursion to the live nativity scene; and forgetting to pack our stockings—a problem my grandmother solved by splitting a pair of pantyhose at the crotch. In the morning, the feet dragged the floor, the hose stuffed with everything imaginable, plus boards, nails, and glue. My grandmother’s eyes sparkled when she asked: “What are you going to make?”
     I am plotting a cheat. I was asked to write about one neglected essay, one essay we don’t talk enough about in our classrooms and on our blogs, but I want to tell you about three because I like things that come in threes, because I couldn’t choose between them, and because, well: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. I want to offer three gifts.
     What can I say? It’s a greedy season.
     I talk about time a lot in my nonfiction classes. I ask my students to consider where their narrators stand to ask vital questions of memories and events that came before in order that they might move forward (I stole that last part from Patricia Hampl). There’s a lot I don’t love about getting older, but as an essayist, the extra years have been a boon. So much time to fold, so many layers, so many points along the timeline where I can dig in my narrative heels, pivot in whatever direction I choose.
     One semester a couple of years ago, I was teaching all my favorites—Joan Didion and James Baldwin, Jo Ann Beard and E.B. White, Jamaica Kincaid and Kathryn Winograd. . . and my students loved these essays, they were learning, but they had a good question: What about young writers, Jill? What about writers like us? 
     What I heard: What about writers who have less time behind them for folding and more time ahead for living? What about writers who are just now saying the first thing they need to say? What’s at stake for these writers? Now, every semester I add more essays written by writers in their twenties to our reading lists; online publishing has made this easy. We talk about the stories we need most to tell, the stories that rise up in our throats when we first open our mouths to speak.
     Each of these essays was written by a brilliant woman while she was in her early to mid-twenties. I am proud to say I knew them when, and I promise you’ll know their names someday if you don’t already. All attended Ball State and wrote nonfiction while they were here with us. In addition to essays, they all make other things, too. Here in Muncie, these women made blogs celebrating and featuring women writing nonfiction; they cross-stitched quotations from “The Fourth State of Matter” and dog portraits; they baked cookies, cakes, and pies.
     They are, all three—Ashley, Alysia, and Brittany—great givers of gifts and tellers of truths:
  1. Ashley C. Ford’s “What Burns in the Pit” (published April 16th, 2012 in The Rumpus) takes on snakes, a baby brother born grey and still, a father gone off to prison, and a mother too deep in her own grief to care for her living children. Five-year-old Ashley is sent off to live with her grandmother on a farm in Missouri. In this short, powerful essay, you’ll find blood and venom, beating and biting, loss upon loss, but there is more that Ashley remembers from this early wild life: “I had a dog, a goat, and a great-grandfather who threw hammers at wild pigs in the back yard then paid me two dollars to collect the tools and bring them back to the house.” Her grandmother alternates between two texts in teaching Ashley to read, the Bible and supermarket celebrity tabloids, and young Ashley tells herself and anyone who will listen: “I’m not dead.” I’m not dead.
  2. Alysia Sawchyn’s “Rice Grain Girl” (published November 2016 in LUMINA Online) is set in the body. Here, there is food, plenty of food—salad and meat and starch on fine plates—but a teenaged Alysia won’t let herself eat the chewy bread dipped in rich sauce. Instead, she wants to starve herself into sharp nothingness, craving the bone edges, as she listens to her Chinese mother’s condemnation of her Dutch boyfriend’s parents: “They let their children make mistakes.” The girl hears stories from her mother’s homeland: every rice grain she leaves behind in the bowl will be a blemish on her future husband’s face. Later, the girl becomes a python, swallowing clementines whole. She navigates through men with pocked skin, writhing fish on her board, and the flesh padding her own body to arrive at a meal alone on a couch, feet up—steamed fish, ginger, scallions, and rice. She eats every bite. 
  3. Brittany Means’s “Driving with Mom”  (published September 1, 2017 in Hippocampus Magazine) takes to the road where the young narrator scrounges around in the floorboard grit to find coins for a phone call and gas station food. In the dark parking lot, waiting for her grandmother to come through on the Western Union payment, Brittany crouches, wanting to charm a flying bat. In the stories she tells herself, she is always turning to creatures for comfort. The road is not without its pleasures, talking in Pig Latin and singing along with Mom to the radio, but usually she is hungry, often she is scared in the cold dark. Her grandma explains away her brown skin, calls her “a rape baby,” and then takes them to a church where the preacher speaks in tongues. On and off, Brittany and her mom live out of their car, nothing can be counted on, and her bed is garbage bags full of clothes. Years later, on her own now, so much still to navigate, she hears her mother’s voice: “On the drive to work, I’ll hold my ribs and I’ll remember, ‘Brittany, don’t ever let a fucking man tell you what to do.’”
     I’m writing this post just before the break of dawn beside a fir tree we dragged inside and set to glowing. The children are nestled all snug in their beds. When my coffee is drained and the words are aligned (ever hopeful, I am), I will wake up the kids and their father, and together we will greet the dawn of the winter solstice of 2017. It’s been a year.
     Outside, the sky is still dark, but in here with my feet on a pillow quilted by my mother, reading again the stories these extraordinary women chose to tell first, needed to tell first, my heart is warm.
     The light is coming.


Jill Christman is the author of Darkroom: A Family Exposure (AWP Award Series in Creative Nonfiction winner), Borrowed Babies: Apprenticing for Motherhood (Shebooks), and essays in magazines such as Brain, Child, Brevity, Fourth Genre, Iron Horse Literary Review, Oprah Magazine, River Teeth, & True Story. She teaches creative nonfiction writing at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, where she lives with her husband, writer Mark Neely, and their two children. Find her @jill_christman.