Post #117: One Man Book Club, Part Three (Herman Koch’s “The Dinner”)

dinnerI know, I know. You’ve been salivating for the next installment of our series One Man Book Club (for the un-initiated, prior to now we’ve discussed Pride and Prejudice and The Family Fang). Lucky for you, so has our beloved intern here at The Almost Right Words, Zane Kai, who suggested we read Herman Koch’s The Dinner. We did so, and the other day, as has been our custom, Zane and I caught up over a cup of coffee on our work breaks and had a discussion about the book, which Zane recorded for posterity. Namely, for you.

Zane Kai: Well, well, well.

Benjamin: Well, well, well? What’s that supposed to mean?

Zane Kai: It’s supposed to mean, mister, that it has been way too long since our last book club chat and it’s about time! Readers have been getting in touch and requesting more!

Benjamin: Don’t get too excited Zane.

Zane Kai: Well, darnit, I am excited! I’ve missed our little chats and I am just DYING (puts hand over heart) to hear what you thought of The Dinner.

Benjamin: I’m actually pretty curious to hear what you thought about it as well, because, to be honest, I can’t really decide. What a strange book, don’t you think?

Zane Kai: I do think! It was almost like reading several books at once, the way it blends genres and tones.

Benjamin: Yeah, agreed. It begins as a sort of set piece, almost like a one-act play. These people are going out to dinner. The narrator and his wife and another couple, who there’s clearly tension with. It then turns out to be his brother and his brother’s wife.

Zane Kai: And the brother isn’t just his brother, but is also a big time candidate for a major political position and, unless I’m wrong, they’re on the cusp of some major election cycle.

Benjamin: Yeah. I think that’s right.

Zane Kai: And then, since we’re sort of summarizing, the dinner itself starts and, it’s narrated in first person, and the narrator is reacting to lots of things, commenting on the cost of the food at the restaurant, the overbearing wait staff, and how annoyed he is that he knows the whole place will be in awe of the fact that his brother, the famous politician, is eating there. It’s all very domestic at first.

Benjamin: Right. Right. Except for a seed of foreshadowing, planted early, that there’s something up with the narrator’s teenage son, it all feels very Cheever and Raymond Carver.

Zane Kai: And then, the bottom drops out.

Benjamin: Yeah. Sort of. Wait. What do you mean?

Zane Kai: Well, there’s kind of a spoiler alert here, don’t you think?

Benjamin: Yeah. Do you think we shouldn’t…

Zane Kai: Uh, hey, if you’re reading this, please know that we’re able to divulge some revealing details about a twist in the book.

Benjamin: So anyway, it turns out that the dinner is not just a dinner. It’s been arranged, and for an urgent conversation, because both couples have recently learned that their teenage sons beat up and killed a homeless person, and have filmed themselves beating up others. The crime has been on the news and footage from the ATM camera where the killing happened, but the footage is grainy and the boys’ faces are obscured, but both parents know immediately it’s their kids and now they’re holding onto this secret, trying to decide what to do with it.

Zane Kai: One thing I wanted to ask you about is how the narrator’s character changes over the course of the novel. At first, he’s a somewhat familiar, overly judgmental narrator, but perhaps no different from you and me. But…

Benjamin: It turns out he’s got major issues of his own.

Zane Kai: I’ll say he’s got issues! He beat up his boss and has some serious anger management issues.

Benjamin: What’s interesting about it is the implication that the narrator, this father, quietly knows that his own violent tendencies and problems controlling his anger, have now gone on to negatively affect his own son, a boy who has not only committed this violent act, this accidental killing, but may not even feel that bad about it.

Zane Kai: Totally.

Benjamin: But, I don’t know…

Zane Kai: What?

Benjamin: Well. It’s a powerful revelation, and in this situation, certainly a haunting one. But from a writerly stand point, it’s a little nail on the head for my taste, you know?

Zane Kai: I disagree! I totally do. I think you’re being too influenced by the intimacy of first person.

Benjamin: Maybe.

Zane Kai: What did you think of the ending?

Benjamin: Totally lost me.

Zane Kai: Really! Oh, I loved it.

Benjamin: Yeah, I just…I don’t know, I don’t want to say it wasn’t believable, because I hate when people say that. It’s such a cop out, lame ass criticism.

Zane Kai: So, what then?

Benjamin: I just didn’t find it satisfying.

Zane Kai: Why? I thought it was a fantastic transfer of power. All this time you think the narrator, the father, is going to be the one to flip, and then it turns out to be the wife.

Benjamin: But that’s what I mean. I just didn’t find it in sync with the rest of the book that she would actually physically harm her brother in law in order to keep him from going public.

Zane Kai: She was doing it to protect her son! You never know what people will do to keep their kids safe.

Benjamin: Yeah, maybe.

Zane Kai: It’s one of those storyteller black holes, I guess. Where you take the reader in this purely speculative place where pretty much no one knows how they would actually respond. Like whether you’d eat your friends flesh to stay alive or something. Until it’s you, you don’t know what you would do. And…morally, she turns out to be the weak link.

Benjamin: Yeah, that I agree with. And like. The politician seems like the thin and insubstantial character in the book, but that’s just the smoke of first person, as you were saying. Just us seeing things from the brother’s POV. The truth is that he’s the one who’s willing to sacrifice his son, even willing to see him go to jail so that he’s accountable for what he did and doesn’t have to walk around with this festering wound of guilt his whole life. He’s also decided to end his political candidacy.

Zane Kai: I just saw you look at your watch.

Benjamin: We need to wrap this up and get back to work

Zane Kai: I guess I have to ask, would you recommend The Dinner?

Benjamin: On the whole, yeah. A very unusual and exhilarating book. Taut and very well written, if a bit uneven. Just don’t blame me if it also kind of pisses you off.

Zane Kai: Can I just add one more thing.

Benjamin: No

 

Post #116: Billy Collins

billy_collins_1Billy Collins is probably the most famous living American poet whose name is not Maya Angelou. A pillar of American letters, he’s about as well regarded critically and popularly as it’s possible for a poet to be while still drawing breath, and living in a country that doesn’t much give a shit about poetry.

Because I live in a great city (Burlington, VT), I learned that Billy Collins was doing a free reading last week up on campus as UVM at the lovely, though horribly humid and hard-benched Ira Allen chapel, and my better half and I double dated (yeah, that’s right, double-dated to a poetry reading, sucka!) to watch Mr. Collins.

If you don’t know Billy Collins’s poems, you should. Even if you’re not a poetry fan. As someone once said, Collins writes poetry for people who don’t like poetry. That’s a bit trite, but kind of true. And his poems might just trick you into loving poetry. They possess the fairy dust of every day life at its funniest and most enlightening. His poems are easy to read and follow, yet never shallow or simple. They are always fresh, yet instantly recognizable.

In the hour he was on stage, Collins actually didn’t read all that much poetry. I’d sort of expected he’d read twenty or thirty poems and then slip away into the night. But he was also there to discuss poetry and in particular a book of poems he edited called Poetry 180, which he intended to be poems that could be read aloud to high school kids as little poetic nuggets. Poems that could be appreciated on the first pass. He talked a bit about his philosophy for writing poems, which is to craft poems that tend to start in the concrete and then venture gradually into the not so concrete, perhaps even abstraction or a dream state. He talked about poetry’s tendency to plunge a reader into a dark basement and make them search for a flashlight, and how his method is the opposite, to craft poems whose “game” is easy to spot. Poems that aren’t trying to hide from the reader, that desire to make their intent a bit more clear so as to increase enjoyment and accessibility. Yeah yeah, you’re thinking, rah rah rah. It’s poetry! Who cares?

But I was there; it was damn interesting. It was a packed house. People were riveted.

If nothing else, it’s always a thrill to see in the flesh an artist who you’ve long admired from afar. He was dapper, self-depricating, hilarious, and completely lovable. I kind of wish I could hang out with him, or that he was my uncle or something.

So you can better smell what I’m cookin, here’s a clip of Collins reading one of his most famous poems, and one he read for us the other night, “The Lanyard.” It’s the blend of funny and sweet and sad that so many of his poems possess. He was a bit more dynamic the other night than in this clip, but you’ll see what I mean.

Post #115: Resolution?

Blue-JasmineBlue Jasmine, Woody Allen’s new film, is one of the darkest and more compelling films  I can remember seeing. Though he’s primarily known as a comedian, Woody does dark exceptionally well. And more often than you might expect. If you’ve never seen Crimes and Misdemeanors, or its more recent alter-ego Match Point, you are missing out on the haunted, and often violent, places Woody likes to tread as he mines his short list of themes, compiling the broadest and most prolific filmography in American history.

Spoiler Alert! Plot details and revelations about Blue Jasmine follow. You’ve been warned.

Cate Blanchett’s powerhouse performance as Jasmine has been getting all the attention, and is surely the reason Blue Jasmine has been at our local theater in downtown Burlington for well over a month now. And make no mistake, she is Oscar caliber awesome. Almost overwhelming. But after taking in the movie last night, I was and remain most struck not by its many quality performances and beautiful cinematography, but by its dramatically unresolved ending. If you know his work, you know Woody Allen is a sucker for endings. Usually, regardless of theme or tone, Allen’s films find their way to a stopping point, which finds the characters not necessarily always redeemed or forgiven or changed, but at least settled in some form. He’s dabbled in unresolvedness before (I’m thinking here of Celebrity and Deconstructing Harry), but I’m not sure he’s ever left a character, or his audience, hanging quite like he leaves Jasmine on a park bench.

Jasmine is down and out. Her life as a Park Avenue wife goes tits up when her financier husband (played by Alec Baldwin) proves to be not only cheating on her, but cheating on his clients. He’s arrested, humiliated, and eventually commits suicide in prison. Jasmine loses all her money, and then begins to lose her mind. We meet Jasmine when she arrives in San Francisco to shack up with her sister, Ginger, a grocery store clerk who Jasmine has ignored for years. As Jasmine tries to get her life back together in Frisco, we gradually learn the full story of her New York demise through a series of flashbacks. It feels like a set-up for a redemption story.

We keep waiting to find out what will happen to Jasmine. How will she change? What will finally make her learn her lesson? Even as she guzzles vodka and pops anti-depressents, her self-muttering growing worse and worse, we still wait to see what’s going to trigger a change in her. She meets a new man, a wealthy guy who hopes for a future in politics, but after Jasmine is caught in a series of lies about her past, he drops her and plunges her back into her alcoholic misery. And still we wait for the resolution. As audience members, we’re conditioned to find out what happens, so much so that it comes to seem like an unspoken agreement between creator and audience. Take us anywhere you want, we think, do whatever suits you to these characters, just tell us how it all turns out. When this doesn’t happen, it’s unsettling and a breach of the unspoken pact. And that’s what Allen does here.

It’s hard to tell if Allen just ran out of ideas or if the lack of resolution is a broader commentary on a species (the rich and selfish) for whom he has trouble finding redemption. The third act for Jasmine never arrives. Her life is ruined, she tries to put it back together, and then…what? Then nothing. The film ends with Jasmine muttering to herself on a bench with little indication of where she’s headed.

Of course, it’s not completely unresolved. Even the lack of resolution is its own form of resolution. In truth, all the evidence points to Jasmine’s continued demise, either suicide, homelessness, or just soul losing insanity. What else are we to think? She continues to be horrible and judgmental of her kind hearted sister even up to the film’s final scenes. She continues to abuse her body with alcohol and Prozac. She slips further away from any corners she can turn. She never learns. She never grows. She becomes more embittered. Less wise. Less sane. And that’s where Woody leaves her, dangling in our imaginations, left to direct her third act on our own. He points us, then back away and lets it play out in our minds.

I still feel a bit haunted. I think you will too.

Post #114: On the Brain

Screen-shot-2013-09-11-at-8.41.48-AMAs you well know, I’ve had J.D. Salinger on the brain lately, as has the publishing world, what with the release of Shale Salerno and David Sheild’s biography, Salinger, soon to accompanied by a documentary film of the same name. Both, I should add, have absolutely gotten their asses kicked in the media, showered with bad reviews, skepticism, and mucho doubt. Metacritic shows an average score of 40 (out of 100) for the film and among 40 plus reviews on Amazon, the book is averaging three stars (out of five). Okay, maybe not a total ass kicking, but a good tongue lashing anyway. I’m nearly done with the book, by the way, and will chime in on my perception of its merits shortly. After that, I promise to let go of this subject matter for at least a few posts.

But I digress. I’m actually here because Stephen Colbert (pictured above wearing Holden Caulfield hunting cap) recently dedicated his entire show to doing his second book club (the first was on Gatsby) on J.D. Salinger and The Catcher in the Rye. It’s hilarious. And insightful. You should watch it. The best part of it is when Colbert is interviewing Tobias Woolf about Catcher and they start disputing what’s better, the short stories or Catcher, and Colbert, defending the stories as Salinger’s best work and seemingly unable to help himself, starts quoting Buddy Glass from memory. It’s awesome. It can be watched here. You should do so.
Toodles.

Post #113: Carol Dweck, meet Tim Tebow

Tim-TebowI don’t follow football. Not really. But I am currently breathing and I do follow sports in general, so of course I heard the news when fledgling quarterback and football celebrity (soon to be outcast?) Tim Tebow was recently cut by the New England Patriots just prior to the start of the 2013-2014 season. Like it or not, pretty much anything Tebow does is national news.

If you recall, a couple years ago, Tebow (former Heisman trophy winner and widely considered one of the greatest, if not more memorable, college quarterbacks in history), become the Denver Broncos starter after their QB was injured and then, through either guile and budding talent and a fierce awareness of timing, or through fluke luck and serendipity and accidental greatness, won several games in a row, including a string of comebacks, and took the Broncos into the playoffs. Media frenzy ensued. Tebow, who was already on the cusp, became a star for all kinds of reasons, only some of them to do with how he played the game of football. Many of them were to do with his religious piety, his good looks.

In the off season though, Tebow was released. He spent the year with the Jets last year and saw minimal playing time and was subsequently released by the Jets, who opted not to re-sign him. They were not all that complimentary of his playing talent or future either. The dream of NFL QBdom seemed, perhaps, to have withered on the vine for a player whose media profile far outshone either his talent or his accomplishments on the field. Suddenly the fact that Tebow was not an NFL caliber QB seemed rather obvious.

Now, coming full circle, the Patriots recently surprised everyone and signed Tebow and brought him to training camp, only to release him, leaving him hapless, team-less, and it would seem, lost.

A couple days ago, it was revealed that Tebow had been getting offers, from the CFL, from the USA Rugby team, and even from another NFL team, though the latter involved a position change. People wanted Tebow after all, though they wanted him on their terms. Tebow has refused them all.  He has decided, at least for now, to hold tight to his dream of being an NFL quarterback and to move in dogged pursuit of it, regardless of obstacle or consequence.

Even if no one else believes Tebow can or will achieve his goal, Tebow himself seems to. And that’s commendable. Of course, if the window on those other opportunities closes at roughly the same rate that the one on his NFL dream and he manages to get himself through neither, everyone’s feelings may change on the matter. For now, though, it’s NFL or bust.

Carol Dweck is a Stanford professor of psychology whose similarities to Tebow probably end at two limbs and a beating heart. But whether he knows it or not, Tebow’s dedication to achieving his goal is a great examples of what Dweck would call a “Growth” Mindset. This as opposed to a “Fixed” Mindset.

In layman’s terms, those with a Fixed Mindset see ability, talent, and intelligence as “fixed,” unable to really be changed even in the face of effort or will. In this mindset, people are less willing to adapt, less open to feedback, and have a more difficult time responding to criticism and adversity.

Conversely, those with a Growth Mindset believe that effort, belief, and a willingness to take extra time and receive extra support as the means to gain what one wants trump any notions of existing ability, talent, or intelligence. Having a Growth Mindset doesn’t mean that you can defy the laws of physics or that anyone could be Michael Jordan. What it means, though, is that you’re far more focused on adaptation and support, believing that you can grow and improve no matter what the circumstances. Science supports the theory and the fact that one’s capabilities are not at the mercy of pre-existing conditions. They can be changed, not just physiologically, but chemically.

There’s a great TED talk on the two mindsets by Eduardo Briceno. It’s ten minutes and well worth your time. It might just change the way you think about yourself and the world.

As you probably know, I’m a high school teacher and I’m starting off the new school year with a unit on brain science, learning, and Mindset. There’s some very cool new revelations regarding what we know about the brain and its capacity to grow, change, and improve. All the time, I bump into students with a Fixed Mindset about school. They believe they are a certain kind of student. They believe that it’s all too hard. Or all too easy. Or that no one likes them. Or that everyone likes them. Or that math is just something they’ll never get. Or that a teacher’s feedback on their writing is worthless because they’re just not a good writer. What I’m learning is that these mindsets play a huge role in how we see ourselves and how we interact with the world. Worrying less about what we can do well naturally, worrying less about talent and natural ability, and worrying more about growth and adaptation, can put someone in a far better position to improve, and not just in the short term.

What’s interesting about Mindset is that it’s not just formed by us. In fact, a lot of our own mindset about ourselves comes from the outside. Parents, friends, coaches, teachers–they tell us things about ourselves, things that might be mirrored in our day to day experience, and before too long, that becomes our narrative of ourselves.

What’s fascinating about Tebow is how much the external narrative around him has changed. A few years ago, this guy was winning the Heisman trophy and was the best player in college football. An unstoppable force on the field. A king. Today he’s a joke. The narrative has flipped on him. Oddly enough, the one thing that seems not to have changed in the story all that much is Tebow. His Mindset on becoming an NFL quarterback is focused and driven, seemingly undeterred by the changing story around him, which now says that he can’t do it, that he’s not talented enough, that it won’t happen. Tebow isn’t listening. Or he’s doing an amazing job or pretending he’s not. The guy simply believes that his desire to be an NFL quarterback and his ability to grow towards that goal is more powerful than whatever natural ability landed him in this position in the first place. If he can just put in enough time and effort, he can will himself past some limitations he’s now experiencing in natural ability. In spite of the odds, he’s chosen to focus on that.

Maybe he’s deluding himself. Maybe he’s exercising a genius of will that’s unfamiliar.

He’ll probably never know, but he’s putting Dweck’s theory to a very high profile test. Who knows what will happen. Maybe he’ll make it, maybe he won’t. Maybe in a few years he’ll be on Hollywood Squares. I honestly don’t really care whether Tim Tebow makes it as an NFL quarterback. But his belief in himself made me sit up and take notice.

I wish him luck.

 

Post #112: If You’re Listening to This

I’m delighted–hell, I’m downright plucky–to have a story in the September issue of Fogged Clarity. If you’re playing along at home, you’ll remember that earlier in the summer the fine folks at FC published my short story “Who Has Time for Stars?” and I’m pleased to say they recently accepted my story “If You’re Listening to This,” which is now up at FC as we speak. So hop on over there and read it. I’ll make it easy on you. Click here.

It’s an honor to be included in what looks like to be another dynamite issue and I’m grateful to their executive editor Benjamin Evans for including me.

Post #111: J to the D

JD Salinger Portrait SessionPardon me while I majorly geek out for a second.

But, holy crap, am I excited.

It seemed like a foregone conclusion that eventually we’d get word of what the hell J.D. Salinger had been writing and putting in a safe all those years. I mean, of course there were going to be posthumous books. That’s books, plural, friends. We all knew it. It was just a matter of when. Numerous sources, including Salinger himself, attested to the fact that he’d been writing on a daily basis since the 60’s but had just lost interest in publishing and was now writing only for himself. Kind of a reverse Emily Dickinson. And since he seemed not to have been using his writing as kindling, the fair conclusion is that he wanted his writing not only found, but published, as he must have known it would be. But since Salinger died in January, 2010, it’s been awfully quiet about the matter and I was starting to get a little worried.

Until now.

Word is that several new Salinger books could be coming, starting in 2015

91NYZ4jdiFL._SL1500_David Shields and Shane Salerno, authors of the forthcoming Salinger biography called, creatively, Salinger, make the claim. They say that one of the books could feature Holden Caulfield and another further stories about the Glass family, which Salinger often wrote about. Another could probe deeper into Salinger’s experiences in World War II, also a common topic in his published writing.

This is the part where I start foaming at the mouth and screaming “YES!” loud enough to scare the neighbors.

Sure, in an ideal world, it would be awfully cool to see some work that ventured into new terrain or introduced different characters.  Find out what Salinger thought of the world as it changed around him. But we’ve been waiting a long ass time for this moment, and I, for one, will take whatever I can get.

Post #110: The Beginning of the End (I hope)

Dear Charles,

Today, I begin what I hope will be the final stage in the editing and re-writing of my novel in progress Returning. That is, until I decide I need to, or am asked to, re-write it again.

The summer has seen far more massive structural and character changes to the book than I would have anticipated. I’m about to re-read the whole thing to see how those changes hold up. I’m predicting that, for the most part, they will. The last time I wrote you, I was editing God and atheism out of the novel and from Chick Myers’s character arc. Turns out I found an ever so small way to include them after all. After I re-wrote the third set, I re-wrote the fourth, and yes, the fifth. The novel begins and ends in the same place and mostly the same way as it has all along, but the roads travelled have been re-directed and filled in with fresh blacktop, and shiny new places to eat.

If you count research and prep time, I’ve been laboring on Returning for over three years and in all that time and all the many hundreds of thousands of words I’ve written and deleted, nobody’s seen a word of it but me. This is a thrilling and scary proposition. When you write a book, you build a protective bubble around yourself and the book so you can keep it, and you, sane and safe during the writing; however, you build this bubble knowing that in the end, you’ll have to pop it and let in all the air that’s been amassing outside.

That moment is coming for me, and for Returning. Soon I’ll begin digging through my desk drawer, looking for my sharpest pin.

As ever, I’m grateful for your friendship and support and will keep you posted.

Best to Martha and the girls,

Benjamin

 

Post #109: Being There

I ventured up to Montreal last week to catch the third round of the Roger’s Cup tennis tournament. The Roger’s Cup is part of the Emirates Airlines U.S. Open Series and an ATP Masters 1000 tournament, which basically is a fancy way of saying that it’s a big time event at which players stand to earn serious prize money and ranking points and therefore attracts the best players in the world. It’s also only two hours from my house, which makes me having never gone seem really stupid. Montreal and Toronto both host Roger’s Cup tournaments simultaneously and the genders alternate every year. This year the men were in Montreal.

When I was a kid living in Indianapolis, there was a big tennis tournament downtown called the RCA Hardcourts that attracted marquee talent and I saw Courier, Martin, and Sampras back in the day, but not only has it been many many years since I’ve seen pro tennis in the flesh, I am a far bigger and more astute fan of the game now. I’m also writing a novel that’s largely about tennis, so there was a minor research component to the trip.

I bought tickets for both the day and night sessions and all told I saw nearly six full matches and watched close to ten consecutive hours of tennis. And in one day I saw Rafael Nadal, Jerzy Janowicz, Andy Murray, Juan Martin Del Potro, Milos Raonic, Laender Paes, and Novak Djokovic. Damn.

Here, in no particular order, are some observations on the day.

1. Even from a couple hundred feet away, you can see the intensity burning off of Nadal like steam off blacktop after summer rain.

2. Murray, great a player as he is, just ain’t that handsome. Trust me, I saw him play doubles from twenty feet away.

3. Tennis, though international, is seriously white. I saw players from all over the world, but India’s Leander Paes was the only player I saw the whole day with skin darker than a vanilla latte.

4. Beware the wrist watch tan! Never saw it coming.

5. I was foolish to think I’d be the only one there with a Roger Federer hat. They were as common as Yankees caps in the Bronx.

6. Quebecians seem not to get that more urinals would lead to shorter bathroom lines. They also seem not to get that walking faster will get you there quicker.

7. You have never seen anybody hit something as hard as Janowicz and Raonic hit their first serves. It looks fast on television, I know, though that idea of speed you get from TV does sparse justice to the cannons that these guys actually fire.

8. #7 makes you, then, fully appreciate how superhuman a top player’s reflexes and reaction time really are. Before watching for the day, I’d thought that the raw power, and seeing said power in the flesh, would be the most impressive physical thing on display. Wrong. The reflexes and timing are insane and absolutely shocked me.

9. Even watching a top player practicing is thrilling. I stood and watched Almagro for a while. (photo below) You’re ten feet away and they just pound the ball like a crazed metronome. Almagro is intense by nature, it seems, but was particularly angry seeming while I and others watched him practice. Nothing even in the vicinity of a grin out of this guy.

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10. Canadians are very cool for letting you bring your own food and drink into the stadium. A little old French Canadian couple in front of me during the day session had a whole picnic lunch they slowly devoured during the Nadal/Janowicz match.

11. American tennis is officially dead. By the third round, there was not a single American left in the tournament. Nor is there currently an American in the world’s top twenty. This is bad.

12. As cool as watching the marquee matches on center court is, it’s all about the outer courts. You’re basically court side and can even better appreciate the pace of the game and the athleticism of its practitioners. When I say you’re court side I’m not kidding. Here’s the coin toss moment before the Andy Murray/Colin Fleming VS. Leander Paes/Stepanek match. I took it from my seat with only a slight zoom.

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13. In doubles, rather than play a win-by-two style Deuce, in the event of Deuce, they play a single point to decide the game in which the receiving team gets to decide who receives. This speeds up play.

14. The players carry around their own towels. On TV, it just looks like the ball kids are feeding the players towels from a massive house stash, but actually the players use the same two towels throughout the match and carry them back to their chairs during breaks, and then to the opposite end during changeovers.

15. Many players change their shirts during matches, though doubles great Daniel Nestor was the only one I saw who changed into a different shirt.

16. If you tilt the camera right, you can actually put yourself in the same frame as Nadal doing his post match interview with Pam Shriver. I’m the Mount Rushmore like face on the left; Nadal is the tiny, navy blue clad fellow on the court to the bottom right.

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17. Those oversized autograph balls are way overpriced.

18. The gift shop swag is pretty crappy, and there’s basically nothing for kids.

19. There’s a lot of in and out during matches on the spectators parts. More, it seemed to me, than at other kinds of sporting events. I attribute this to the fact that there’s many matches happening simultaneously, and you can go see whatever you want at any time.

20. Because of #19, it can feel like you’re always missing something and wishing you could be two places at once. You often hear distant applause and wonder what you’re missing.

21. No line at the Canadian/US Border either coming or going = priceless.

22. I think next time I’ll still catch two consecutive sessions, though watch an evening session, stay overnight, and then the next day’s afternoon session.

23. It cost me around $200 to watch ten hours of elite level sport. If you consider that it would take four basket ball games to equal that quantity, the price seems pretty fair.

24. Though I was thrilled to see so many top players in person, Nadal, I have to say, inspired the day’s biggest man crush. Wow. I took a photo of him shirtless after the match for my wife. But I kind of wanted it too.

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25. I can’t wait until my kids are old enough to bring along.

 

Post #108: Good Medicine From the News Feed

fb_icon_325x325My relationship to Facebook is that of a guy who got convinced to go to a party he’s now having trouble fitting in at, but one he’s still pretty glad he came to anyway . I’m not a constant status updater or gobbler of my friends’ every whim and posting, but I’m not a stranger either. Nor am I too cool for Facebook school. I check the news feed every day or two, post something at least once a week. Quite often, I’m left chuckling, shaking my head, or feeling very little at all; however, there are moments, such as recently, when my friend and fellow Bread Loaf alum Courtney Maum (pictured below) posted what felt like very good medicine to me, when Facebook seems pretty damn necessary.

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She wrote:

“Ten years ago, when I was still living in Paris, I wrote a novel called “The Blue Bear.” I was uncommonly lucky and got an agent for it and an interested editor at Doubleday right away. I worked on revisions for said editor all summer, talking with her on the phone, assured that when I returned to the states in September, we would sign a book deal. Revisions accomplished, I returned to Connecticut and the meeting was set. One week before this meeting, not only did the editor change her mind, but she also quit her job, leaving me “orphaned,” the offer gone and a dream dissolved.

I was totally thrown off-track by this turn of events. My writing became awful—I quickly set about writing something more “commercial” which was what the other editors who read the manuscript said they wanted. I became sad. I eventually became sadder. I left New York because I felt jealous and competitive and envious of anyone who was having success and it made my writing—and the process of writing—worse.

It took me a very long time to get rid of the disappointment and bitterness. YEARS. And then I got the joy back. I started writing for me again, not for some faceless audience and editor that I didn’t have. I stopped asking myself whether or not I was going to be liked or be successful, or quite simply, be published, and just started writing. And so it is, a full TEN YEARS after the crash of this first novel that a serendipitous alignment with the incomparable literary agent Rebecca Danielle Gradinger gave me the encouragement and motivation and courage to pick this decade-old project up again. And it is with some serious joy and emotion that I’m happy to tell you that the entirely new version I’ve quietly been working on has just been purchased by Sally Kim at Simon and Schuster for publication (if all goes well) next summer.

My friends: keep working. Keeping working hard for YOU. This journey taught me a very difficult but important lesson about patience, and generosity, and getting over oneself and getting the work done.”

I’m excited for Courtney. A little jealous, yeah. But I like to think it’s the good kind of jealousy. 

I spend a lot of my time alone in front of a computer typing words onto a screen that add up to stories. I do this for a variety of reasons. Obsession. Joy. Love. Ego. Desire. Avoidance. The reasons one creates are not readily understood or explained. But the sustaining force that propels me up to my attic writing room at the end of a long ass day when I just want to watch Jersey Shore is the sort of quiet passion that, I think, Courtney re-discovered. That unmistakable feeling of (wait for it, now don’t gag) personal accomplishment. Of a job well done. Call it whatever you want. Whatever it is, though, it has to be your own.

I’m working on a long novel right now and hope to begin formally submitting it to agents in the fall. That process, one that’s indescribably daunting and scary, is also one that’s very different from the protracted creative dream that brought the novel to life. As I’ve gotten closer and closer to the finish line, the two worlds, the business and the creative, have been moving closer together in my periphery, reaching out to touch so they make out like horny teenagers and make a mess of things. Courtney’s words have helped me find some courage to keep them (or at least try to) separate for now. To write the book that I need and feel compelled to write without the crushing burden of expectation. All that is out there, waiting patiently.  

By the way, if her news isn’t convincing enough, take my word for it that Courtney is a fantastic writer, and much of her writing is very humorous and will brighten your day. Check out an installment in her series “John Mayer’s Guide to Foraging” here. You can also follow Courtney on Tumblr and I recommend you do so. http://courtneymaum.tumblr.com