splash-footballmond

I’m a big Steve Almond fan.  I think he’s one of our smartest and gutsiest writers.  His latest book, Against Football (Melville House), is surely one of the year’s most provocative titles.  Almond offers a searing analysis of America’s most popular sport, going deep where most sports writers tend to stay safely in the shallows, challenging the reader’s assumptions about what the game means, and what its massive cultural import says about our society.

Steve and I had a great conversation on my podcast1 not too long ago, and this past week I had the chance to catch up with him via email for some follow-up questions.

the_master_phoenix_04

Certain films, whether they’re franchise fare like The Hunger Games or The Avengers, or indie tone poems like Tree of Life or Drive, insist on a visceral, almost inchoate, appreciation. Sure, you can talk about how camera angles frame the director’s ethical perspective, or explore how lighting choices illuminate character, but you’d be hamstringing yourself. When Katniss takes her sister’s place in the arena or Captain America sacrifices himself to save a world he doesn’t feel a part of; when volcanic eruptions symbolize a father’s rage, or a chord of 80’s techno-pop evokes a young man’s inability to feel, we watch our own aspirations and insecurities writ large on the silver screen.   

Our Waking Life

By Mag Gabbert

Essay

Ty and I were asleep. We were in my new apartment, the first place I’d ever lived in on my own. We’d gone to bed exhausted after a full day of moving my belongings from my grandmother’s house in Dallas to my new place in San Antonio, where I was about to begin my junior year of college. The apartment was still empty, but for a few stacks of boxes in the living room, a wicker trunk that was to serve as my coffee table, and a futon, laid flat in my room, that was to serve as my bed. I remember opening my own front door for the first time, the rushing smell of fresh paint and wood.

Supersex Me

By Jo Scott-Coe

Essay

bushmaster manOn  Friday, November 30, after driving himself from Connecticut to Wyoming, Christopher Krumm used a bow and arrow to kill his professor father at the front of a classroom filled with community college students, and then stabbed himself to death. But before he did that, he stabbed his father’s 42 year-old girlfriend at home two miles away.

On Friday, December 14, Adam Lanza went on a shooting rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School and killed twenty children and six adults. But before he did that, he shot and killed his mother at home.

On Christmas Eve, William Spengler lured first responders to his neighborhood by setting a fire and then shooting four firemen, killing two of them, then committing suicide. Before he did that, he likely caused the death of his sister, whose remains were later found in the ashes. Way before that, in 1980, he killed his grandmother with a hammer.

To be fair, we abused each other. It was not–as one might use the cliche–a one-way street. The first time we had a big a fight I threw a desklamp against a wall where it shattered and the sparks sifted like fireworks falling in a heated sky till they faded and disappeared. We had just moved in together, into this one bedroom Victorian house on Ralston Street in Reno, Nevada, two houses down from the pizza joint/pub where we worked. My friend from school had left a message on our answering machine, inviting me to her birthday party. My girlfriend insisted that I had fucked this friend, that I was still fucking her. Why else would she invite me to the party, and not explicitly also invite my girlfriend? I was running around, I couldn’t keep my dick in my pants, she should have known I was that kind of guy, why does she always do this, getting herself involved with people like me? My girlfriend wouldn’t let me say anything. In frustration the lamp flew.

“The main character is totally vicious, but she has her reasons. Actually, she kind of reminds me of you.” The friend who insisted that I read The Hunger Games knew me all too well. Still, I wasn’t sure if I was insulted or flattered.

Prickly. Proud. Calculating. Hard-nosed. Hard-assed. Lethal. These are the adjectives ascribed to sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen, the hardscrabble heroine conscripted into a gladiatorial arena as popcorn fodder for the proletariat. Even fans of the book fault Katniss for her arctic reserve: “Yeah I was kind of not a fan of Katniss as a protagonist,” says i09 commenter CaffeineNictoteneVodka.  “She seems to run from this hero role kicking and screaming … And she has no idea how ridiculously awesome of a man Peeta is.”  Fellow commenter Vvornth concurs: “While being an iconic person Katniss acts in a completely selfish and unsympathetic manner.”

Students in the University System of Georgia must take and pass a Regents’ Exam in writing. I’ve taught a Regents’ Exam prep course, and in freshman composition I have generally been required to teach students how to pass this test. There are 635 approved essay prompts. When a student takes his Regents’ Exam, a random selection of four of these prompts shows up on the test instruction sheet. From these the student chooses one prompt.

As a writing exercise—warming up before jumping into whatever book I’m working on each day—I’ve been randomly selecting a prompt from the list of approved essay topics (http://www2.gsu.edu/~wwwrtp/topics.htm) and writing a short essay—about the same length that an actual Georgia college student might compose—when taking this test.

I don’t know if I’ll end up writing 635 essays, but this is a start. I’m calling this project “Writing Sample.”

 

What are the most appropriate ways for people to show anger? Explain.

 

In the late 1990s I lived in Reno, Nevada and bartended at a college pizza joint and had a girlfriend who also worked at this bar and me and this girlfriend tried living together for about six months and although that didn’t work out, we stuck together for something like three or four years. Our relationship did not blossom beyond boyfriend-girlfriend because (and here I would like to say that it was because she’s a crazy bitch—and I still think she is—but I’m going to be honest with myself instead) but we both drank way too much and she had some anger management issues and these things combined brought out the worst in me, too. I remember the first time: I knocked that desklamp so hard it flew across the office in her house (the little Victorian I had just moved into), the bulb shattering against the opposite wall, the aluminum shade flattened, sparks floating to the carpet then darkness and silence. This happened because a friend had called to invite me to her birthday party and my girlfriend accused me of having fucked this friend, accused me of still fucking her, or of at least wanting to, and none of these things were true and my girlfriend wouldn’t shut up and listen to reason. We destroyed almost everything we owned. Before I moved out, three guitars ended up splintered on the street’s asphalt during violent attempts to leave; knives slashed, and bare hands ripped to shreds, an Oleg Cassini gown and cashmere dresses and a Hugo Boss suit; about ten window panes were replaced in the house and one on the old lady’s pickup; a thirty-six-inch television hissed and spewed smoke out its vents after I threw it; I had black eyes and bloodied lips, and the cops knew us by first name, and I’d attempted suicide twice, both times with pills, and I had walked barefoot out of the hospital in the middle of a winter’s night after doctors pumped my stomach, because the girlfriend in her visit said I wouldn’t come home but would instead go to the state mental health facility.

A few years after this, not long after the 90s sealed closed for good with the selection of a new president by our Supreme Court, some people I’d never heard of flew planes into buildings in New York City and Washington D.C., and into an empty field in Pennsylvania. Living on the west coast, as I did then, I learned of this long after most of the people involved had died, after the sites of this wreckage were smoldering and smoking apocalypses. A friend from high school woke me with a telephone call. He said, “The Twin Towers, dude, they’re gone.” I drove to the bar, this same college bar where I had once worked with my ex-girlfriend, the bar where my butt still perched to suck down one-dollar mugs of PBR. There my friends gathered around the screen like flies over a kill and we watched the devastation repeat, repeat. I was teaching at the university by then; I cancelled class. On the payphone outside my father’s voice shook and I said, “I’ll go to war. I’ll sign up for the Army if they need me, or if I’m drafted.” Dad said, “You may have to.” The next few days the sky was untouched canvas, devoid of jetliners’ trails brushed across it. American flags sprouted in bungalows’ front yards, from the windows of passing Fords and Toyotas. God Bless America became hello. The president said, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” American air support secured Kabul; the Taliban fled to Pakistan.

More than a decade has passed. My ex-girlfriend tried to start a fight with me when I returned to Reno to give a reading. I ignored her, arching my eyebrows with incredulity while I signed a copy for the woman who’d kindly purchased my book. Somewhere between 14,000 and 40,000 civilians have died as a result of war in Afghanistan, and add to that the 3,000 dead civilians here in the United States. The last time my wife and I fought it was over who changes more diapers, who has to get up at four AM to feed our daughter, who has to be stuck inside the house all day while you get to leave for work, who has to work all the goddamn time and cannot spend the time he’d like with his baby. I stepped away, took a deep breath, returned, and said, “What can I do to help?”

“Come over here, you sexy bitch.”

The bartender’s voice seeped slowly into my awareness as I stood staring hang-jawed at my surroundings: the dark wood sheathing the club from floor to ceiling, the fish tanks embedded into the face of the long bar, and, especially the person sitting on the barstool. Was that the same person featured in the drag show I’d been at a few weeks earlier? Finally, I heard the words.

I turned my head toward the bartender and the space between me and the bar, which had only seconds ago been filled by other customers but was now empty, and realized he was talking to me.

“Oh! I’m the sexy bitch,” I said. “Thanks for that. I was worried that I looked like Xena: Warrior Princess.”

In 1988, when I was 12 and viewed the world through rose-colored, grass-is-always-greener glasses, I finally got permission to move from our going nowhere slowly southern New Mexico town to Las Vegas, where my dad lived. My older sister Kim and I had been making the trek from Artesia to Vegas for three months each summer since I was in kindergarten and she was in first grade, and I couldn’t wait for one, long, luxurious vacation. I couldn’t wait to get out of my life, where my stepdad regularly beat the crap out of my mom, and where I got spankings so bad that I spent most of elementary school covered in bruises from the backs of my knees to my tailbone. I couldn’t wait to be away from my sister, who was mean and strange and always in my space.

The plan was for Kim and I to go to Vegas, where Kim would spend the summer, like usual. At the end of the summer, Kim would return to New Mexico and I would stay in Vegas, my perpetual Disneyland, forever and ever, la la la.