In a recent New Yorker piece (“Pond Scum,” October 19), Kathryn Schulz takes a twenty-first-century hammer to a nineteenth-century nail, pounding Henry David Thoreau into submission. In addition to Thoreau’s supposed arrogance, self-righteousness, narcissism, parochialism, isolationism, and apparent embrace of every “ism” against humanity, there’s one particular flaw in Thoreau’s character that Schulz finds particularly galling: The man didn’t much care for coffee. “I cannot,” she writes, “idolize anyone who opposes coffee.”
It’s a fine quip, the kind that leavens so much of Schulz’s other work (I’m a fan of her book Being Wrong) and the kind that inspires me to retort, in equally playful fashion, that the sawdust and chicory-laden brew available in Thoreau’s day can’t fairly be compared to the tony aromatic blend that I assume perks Schulz to life every morning. Please, let us not become ahistorical about coffee!
Unfortunately, Schulz has done more than condemn the beverage preference of a man known as the father (or at least legal guardian) of environmentalism, transcendentalism, and abolitionism. She’s undertaken a coordinated assault on the gentleman’s character, not to mention his political philosophy and historical legacy. The best thing that can be said about Schulz’s casting of Thoreau as a “thoroughgoing misanthrope” is that her skepticism of the man is obscured by overstatement.
Schulz’s assessment of Thoreau’s social life offers the most obvious case in point. Early on, she observes that Thoreau saw human companionship as “at best a time consuming annoyance.” Thoreau’s acquaintances “had the same moral status [to him] as doormats.” He was, she adds, a “castaway from the rest of humanity.” But later, while mocking his pseudo-wilderness “ersatz experience” as “cabin porn,” she documents a different Thoreau. This one walked to Concord “several times a week, lured by … the chance to dine with friends.” This one was a guy who “routinely hosted other guests … sometimes as many as thirty at a time.” This one, in other words, hardly sounds like an asocial crank. So when Schulz starts dissing Thoreau for his inconsistencies, it’s clear that a deeper—one might say blinding—discontent is driving the analysis.
During mile 1 of my first 50-mile race, as darkness lifted from a perfect Vermont morning, I did what a lot of people do when they think they might be in over their head—I started talking to strangers.
By mile 5, I had acquaintances. By mile 10, I had friends. By mile 12, I had advice. Lots of it. Be patient. There’s no rush. Walk the hills. Eat a lot. Eat gummy bears. Don’t stress. Just look at this as a day when you get to run for 10 hours without guilt. I obeyed all of it.
By mile 31, I put on a fresh pair of shoes and socks—taken from a bag we were allowed to send ahead to ourselves—in addition to a foil-wrapped bean burrito that I’d stuffed into one of the shoes the night before.
I was moving through the woods with the purest joy, deeply at ease with the elemental act of running. In fact, somewhere around mile 27, I decided that this was the kind of running I really loved. No more obsessing over pace. No strategizing except to finish. Lots of down time at rest stops. Plenty of socializing. Yes, from now on, this is what I would do. Ultra marathoning. I was converted.
I lay down in a field of grass and bit off the end the burrito. Considering the infrequency with which I saw port-o-cans, I decided that this first bite should be the last bite, so I shoved the burrito back into the humid well of one of my used shoes (which the race organizers would ferry back to the finish), laced up my fresh shoes, ate a Clif Bar, and ran on, now more in my head than in over it.
Read more here.
This piece of mine ran a few days ago in Pacific Standard. If you are moved to comment, do so there. Thanks for reading. (For those who don’t know, I grew up playing tennis with some level of seriousness; the sport is one I love.)
In the summer of 1984 John McEnroe beat Jimmy Connors in the Wimbledon finals 6-1, 6-1, 6-2. The match was, as one British journalist called it, “the most imperious victory in the history of tennis.” McEnroe made only three unforced errors. Seventy-eight percent of his first serves were in. Ten were aces. After a couple of those aces, Connors looked down in confusion, as if his shorts had dropped to his ankles. All McEnroe could say about the match was that the ball looked like “a cantaloupe.” It was as close as a tennis player had ever come to achieving actual perfection.
And that was the problem. The awful irony of McEnroe’s victory over Connors was that—in its near perfection—the performance couldn’t be sustained beyond the moment. The victory thus marked a year during which McEnroe would gradually sense what perhaps only exceptional athletes can sense: the moment of his own demise. The result of that realization for McEnroe was, McEnroe being McEnroe, an explosive moment of personal recognition, manifested, naturally, in an infamous tantrum.
Sports psychologists are quick to identify the emotional risk inherent in the athlete’s quest for perfection. They write with painful formality, noting such things as how “the extreme orientation that accompanies perfectionism is antithetical to attaining positive outcomes.” McEnroe, as he had a way of doing, had taken that “extreme orientation” to a new extreme and, upon realizing the temporality of his accomplishment, went ballistic on a Swedish tennis court in a way that was more terrifying than entertaining. The incident, thanks to YouTube, has amassed a sort of cult following. It deserves a re-visitation because, among other things, it offers rare insight into the raw emotion that marks the inevitable pain of being great.
OBVIOUS POINT FIRST: MCENROE in his prime was great beyond great. This was true because, above all else, he had what seemed to be a magical understanding of space. “He is the one player in the game,” said the tennis legend Fred Perry, “who knows exactly where his racket is and what his options are.” Tennis is basically a conservative sport. With its arcane scoring system, stuffy dress code, and clubby rituals, it’s also elitist. McEnroe’s genius was to reduce pretense and pomp to trigonometry and physics. And then slice the cantaloupe with the delicacy and precision of a hand surgeon.
Watch him play. Evidence of country club training is non-existent. He’s a pick-up player, a street urchin with nimble racket skills and quick feet. He doesn’t bend his knees, loop his strokes, or deliver shots with liquid smoothness from the sanctuary of the baseline. He doesn’t volley with his arm set in an elegant V, placing the ball safely within the lines. To the contrary, he’s pure angst driven by raw ability. He thrives on a Euclidean understanding of angles and has a habit of placing his shots on the outer tenth of the line, often catching it with nothing more than soft yellow fuzz.
But his form is absolutely atrocious. He does everything you were told not to during summer tennis lessons. But that’s what allows him to flout any convention, cheapen the virtue of any shot, sully any stroke in order to win a point. He spent his professional career chipping and dicing and lobbing and drop-shotting his way into tennis history. An infuriated Arthur Ashe remembered the one time he played McEnroe (and lost) in these terms: “It’s slice here, nick there, cut over here. Pretty soon you’ve got blood all over you.”
Blood was spilled all over in 1984. And not just on Connors. McEnroe won 78 of his 80 matches that year. It was an astounding accomplishment. For all intents and purposes, a player couldn’t imagine having a better year. Yet, for all his success, the tour was sustained by forces horrible and dark. McEnroe, winning match after match, spent the year getting angrier and angrier, cursing judges, mocking fans, and pacing the court as if it were the common room of an asylum. This anxiety culminated at the Swedish Open. It came in a match he eventually won against native son Anders Jarryd, and it came in the form of an upper-shelf outburst that would mark his inevitable decline in tennis greatness at the professionally precarious age of 25.
THE INCIDENT BEGINS MUCH as you’d expect: The chair umpire calls a serve out that McEnroe knows was in. He looks to the umpire, his face locked in disbelief. “That ball was right on the line, right on the line,” he says. “You’ve made no mistakes in this match yet, right?” (He’s getting angrier.) “No mistakes whatsoever?” (He’s now seething.) The umpire stays silent. “Answer the question!” McEnroe delivers the first two words in a measured tone. But the last one he lets explode like cannon fire. “Thequestion jerk!” Jeers and boos emanate from the grandstand of Swedes, tender people whose idea of tennis demeanor is the impossible coolness of Bjorn Borg. Half of McEnroe’s shirttail droops out the back of his shorts. He’s fuming.
The judge issues a code violation. Verbal abuse. One point penalty. McEnroe, now moving in circles like he’s feral, smacks a ball into the bleachers at a loudmouthed fan before stepping to the service line and preparing for his serve. He looks tortured. He is tortured. He’s down 1-6, 2-3. The crowd goes silent. McEnroe leans forward, tosses the ball skyward, arches backward limbo-like, and then uncoils—a machine.
The serve is brilliant. It hits the line and skips like cold water on a hot skillet. George Plimpton once wrote how McEnroe is “the only player in the history of the game to go berserk and play better tennis.” You can see in this serve the truth of that observation. But Jarryd returns it crosscourt and McEnroe, who hadn’t quite reached the net, takes the ball on the bounce and flubs a forehand, losing the game. It is then, about 10 steps into his journey to his chair for the changeover, that John McEnroe goes nuts.
THERE’S SOMETHING ALMOST SHAKESPEAREAN in a McEnroe breakdown. Professional actors have studied it, analyzing his tormented mannerisms and intonations frame by frame. Tom Hulse did so before playing Mozart in Amadeus. Ian McKellan did the same when he played Coriolanus. There’s little doubt that McEnroe’s mercurial explosions have a calculated intensity to them. “I did have an idea in mind,” he later admitted about his youthful outbursts. “I thought tennis had had enough of manners.”
The full subversive implications of this idea became manifest in the late 1970s, when McEnroe, still a teenager, started qualifying for Wimbledon. His behavior on Old World turf—really, his mere presence in the Old World—grated against Wimbledon’s unwritten codes of decency. With corkscrewed hair and verbal aggression that made the establishment gasp (he called one judge “a disgrace to mankind”) the 18-year-old underdog, who in 1978 still drove a rusty Ford Pinto and lived with his parents, made it clear he didn’t give a dollop of clotted cream for Wimbledon’s arbitrary expectations of deference. He also knew this is what made him unique. He knew that within this bad-boy disposition was lodged his persona.
He ate in the All England clubhouse with his fingers. He jammed his hands in his pockets when it was time to press dignitary flesh. He reached the quarterfinals out of nowhere and wondered aloud why one had to bow to that old hag of a Queen when “you’re not even from that country.” His petulant cavorting on the royal lawnscape was the sporting equivalent of Johnny Rotten floating down the Thames, cursing the monarchy through a bullhorn. McEnroe’s run-of-the-mill tantrums nurtured this rebellion and wove it into his identity.
But the Swedish incident was different. It was more than a display of bad manners. As McEnroe reaches step 10 on his way back to his chair, he grips his racket like it’s a golf club and starts whacking it into his tennis bag. He’s insane with rage. The match is indoors so the impact booms throughout the cavernous arena. The Swedes go crazy. They’re appalled. They want more.
And McEnroe delivers, teeing off on a bottle of water and sending it airborne across a front row of spectators. It splatters the King of Sweden as it passes by. The judge is beside himself. He’s stuck in his little tower screaming, trying to make himself heard over the mayhem: “Code violation! Code violation!” McEnroe, who was just getting ready to sit down, leaps up at this, and, like a Tasmanian devil, starts swatting with his racket everything in sight, smacking another bucket of liquid off the table and shredding a flower arrangement with a forehand. Then he places a blue towel over his head and takes his seat, spent.
Part of me wants to laugh when I watch the scene. But I never do. I can’t.
WHEN CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGISTS EVALUATE patients with anger issues they try to ascertain if an outburst was “within a normal range of magnitude.” McEnroe always berated himself a little bit when he cheated his own greatness. Under such circumstances his normal range of magnitude was modest. He’d throw his racket or yell at a fan or declare himself to be a worthless human being. But when an umpire with coke-bottle glasses was the one cheating McEnroe’s greatness, his normal range of magnitude became infinite. Given the nature of his game, given the nature of being John McEnroe, how could it have been otherwise?
His entire life was spent internalizing the dimensions of a tennis court and, in turn, fine-tuning his body to respond to those dimensions with tiny chops and hacks. His body knew tennis the way a falling ball knows gravity. The reality of McEnroe’s tantrum in Sweden was that, as he raged, he knew, by whatever intuitive calculus one knows such things, that it would never again be so perfectly awesome to be John McEnroe. The essence of his rebellion—in a match he eventually won 1-6, 7-6, 6-1—was evaporating. The judge, the stadium, and, because of the Internet, the entire world, would hear about it.
It’s a terrifying prospect to contemplate—that a great athlete can be witness to, and feel the full weight of, the precise moment of his fall from greatness. But when that judge in Sweden called McEnroe’s serve out, I suspect he changed the lines for John McEnroe, and McEnroe, much like George Washington checking his pulse at the moment of his death, knew it as well as he knew every inch of the court.
It’s not terribly fashionable to go all weak kneed over a dead white male intellectual, and you can even run afoul of some pretty politically correct rules for doing so, but I’ll take Isaiah Berlin over anyone any day.
The animal rights movement needs an Isaiah Berlin. Of course it’ll never get an Isaiah Berlin. The man was a colossal and deeply sensitive intellect without peer. But the movement could sure benefit from a thinker who spoke to the general public with deep insight and social aplomb and hard honesty while avoiding self-righteousness and turgid moral certainty. Whereas liberalism thrived because of Berlin, the animal rights movement could similarly rise from the ashes if we could somehow articulate realistic goals in a way that was pluralistic—Berlin’s forte—rather than alienating and uncompromising and just plain self-indulgent.
Perhaps what attracts me the most to Berlin was his sense of history. More than once, I’ve offered the opinion that the animal rights movement generally lacks a sense of the past. We know not what we’ve inherited. In turn, we know not what we must confront, undo, and replace. This failure to appreciate the weight of the past leads to all-too-casual calls for a complete ending of animal exploitation—as if that were a viable choice. We thus find ourselves wondering a moral fantasyland of perfection and fighting over directions. Boring. In any case, Berlin’s values were not only pluralistic, they were deeply informed by the past, and thus rooted in reality. Exciting.
Another aspect of Berlin’s thought that makes me more than a fanboy was the fact that his sense moral pluralism derived from his reading of 19th-century Russian literature. Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy nurtured Berlin’s muse, especially while he lived as a Jew in England. Russian thought in general led to his belief that the pursuit of western freedom should never trump social justice and, even more appealing to me, it led to the conviction that it took more moral courage for the intellectual to compromise strategically than to remain defiantly principled at all times. That’s defiant, by the way, of history.
If you don’t believe me, read “Two Concepts of Liberty” and check back in.
Essayists worthy of the name typically dance their dance through an artful arrangement. They situate segments collage-like to create an impression about something you never thought much mattered. The impact is layered and delayed and warrants return visits. Narration and thesis-making—although not irrelevant—are normally subsumed by some misty quality living between the lines. Personality comes through but doesn’t overpower. When I admire an “arrangement” essay, I can never really say why I admire it. A quick mental scan puts me in the mind of James Wood and Rebecca Solnit and a slew of New Yorker writers, such as John McPhee, and perhaps Roland Barthes and Anne Fadiman. And other great ones.
A special class of essayist goes further. Members of this rarified cohort—well, my rarified cohort anyway— so effortlessly intuit the art of arrangement that they give birth to the essay in full form. The arrangement happens out of sight, in utero perhaps, and the beauty for the reader comes in the ability to witness the rare act of a preternaturally gifted writer rearing something into maturity. I’ve always included David Foster Wallace and George Orwell in this category. Now, after reading Pulphead, I’m placing John Jeremiah Sullivan on the podium.
The topical range of Sullivan’s work—a Christian rock festival, a story about his brother getting electrocuted, Michael Jackson, Indian mounds, and so on —are coals that become diamonds for the simplest of reasons: he loves people. Adores them. Wants to know more about them for no other reason than he wants to know more about them. And the result of this unconditional (dare I say Christ-like?) affection for the most flawed people are essays that will make you feel a little sorry for Michael Jackson, respect Christian rock goers, admire a crazed early American naturalist who made up all kinds of shit, and buy a bunch country blues—a genre you didn’t know you loved— on iTunes. In other words, these essays, in their complete lack of pretense and irony, offer a whiff of awe about topics you had decided were of no use to life and how to live it.
Sullivan is an editor at The Paris Review. Despite the fancy credential, there’s not a hint of literary affectation to the man. Which is not to say he doesn’t have a special facility with words. An RV rolling backwards down a muddy hill “had reached a degree of tilt she was not engineered to handle.” An old book of Indian cave drawings allows one to “slip into it and get behind the eyes of the American mind for a minute.” A gas station attendant in Kentucky who makes a spot-on off-the-cuff remark “had just dropped some upper-level wisdom on us through a parting in his tobacco-browned beard-nest.” And as for that prevaricating naturalist: “His beautiful brain was wrong for the nineteenth century. He was an eighteenth-century man.” I read this stuff and I’m mesmerized, not to mention reminded why I read in the first place.
Sullivan’s most admirable quality as an essayist, given his deep affection for human creatures, is how he observes them and, with the utmost sensitivity, presents them to us. “The serious blues people are less than ten,” says one elderly student of the genre. “Country, seven. Jazz, maybe fifteen. Most are to one degree or another sociopathic.” Says one archeologist: “I can see an arrowhead in a sea of gravel.” A woman he interviewed about her experience during hurricane Katrina “told me a giant sea turtle swam through her kitchen while she perched on the counter.” When an interview Sullivan does with the drummer Bunny Wailer goes sour in Jamaica, the reggae god calls Sullivan a “ras clot” and a “bumba clot.” With signature innocence, Sullivan notes “I’m not 100 percent sure what these words mean, but apparently they have something to do with an ass rag or used tampon.”
Entertainment segues into wisdom at odd and unexpected moments. Sullivan doesn’t offer much by way of Big Picture punctuation, but when he does it’s an exclamation point in bold. “It’s the human condition to be confused,” he writes, noting how “no other animal ever had an erroneous thought about nature.” Recalling the sublime feeling that comes from being in an expensive and truly privileged “kind of paradise,” he writes, “How could anyone wish it away? It’s rather that everyone should have it.” A somewhat depraved writer he lived with in a shared condition of backwoods primitiveness bangs away manically at a typewriter. When he’s gone, Sullivan steals a glance to find one sentence. He writes, “The sentence was perfect.” Sometimes they are.