Thursday, June 24, 2010

Why Sports Matter

It is easy to criticize sports and athletes.  Many spoiled stars prove that, for all their exploits on the field, they are flawed, sad people off it.  Ticket prices and athletes' salaries soar ever higher while unemployment ravages our economy.  And we, the fans, pay more attention to March Madness than the madness in Darfur.

But for all this, sports do matter.  Sports can be a force for good.  Take Manut Bol.  At one point the tallest basketball player ever, he donated most of his money to help the people of Sudan, his homeland.  He worked tirelessly to raise awareness about the suffering there and to raise money for schools.  He did anything and everything he could for his people.

He participated in Celebrity Boxing on Fox so they would televise the phone number of his charity, the Ring True Foundation (he won in the third round).  Unable to ice-skate, he nonetheless signed a one day contract with the Indianapolis Ice of the Central Hockey League to raise money.  He even worked as a jockey!

Manut Bol died last Saturday from acute kidney failure and complications from Stevens-Johnson syndrome.  At the time of his death, the first of his schools is being built in his childhood village.  His dream was to build 41 schools.  Only 40 to go.

This goal is achievable; as Nicholas Kristof wrote in today's New York Times, "If each admirer chipped in the cost of a ticket to just one game, if each of his former teams agreed to match donations, if a few current and former N.B.A. stars agreed to stand in for Bol at fund-raisers, why then schools would sprout all across Sudan."

I bet it will happen.  And it will all be because of a tall former cattle-herder learned to play basketball.

Just in this week alone, there have been other examples of the power of sports at work.  The U.S. men's national soccer team persevered through two horrendous calls that disallowed goals and won its group, displaying tenacity and resolve at a moment when American leadership often lacks either.  Lightly regarded teams like Japan played inspired soccer while traditional powers like Italy dissolved from cynicism while exiting early.  Time and time again, hardworking teams overcame more talented squads that spent more time sniping at each other than scoring.  Desire and determination beat arrogance and narcissism.

That is why sports matter.  In our athletes and in our athletic events, we see the best and worst of humanity.  For every Italian team that crashes out ignobly, there is an American team that wins brilliantly.  For every Ben Roethlisberger, there is also a Manut Bol.  And if you want to help, head to  While we cannot all be stars, we can all do our part.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

When Do Writers Peak?

The June 14th edition of the New Yorker contains a list of "20 Under 40"; that is, 20 authors under 40 years old handpicked by their editors exemplifying the best the world has to offer.  If you have time, give it a read.  The stories are a mixed lot.  Some are stand-alone works, others are excerpts from larger pieces.  All are worth your attention.

My initial reaction to the stories was jealousy tinged with admiration.  They all write far better than I, and now they bear the New Yorker stamp of approval.  How I wish to have made such a list, to have produced something of such worth!  But time is on my side, for I only recently celebrated my 26th birthday.  Writers take a while to peak.  Right?

Wrong, says Sam Tanehaus of the New York Times.  His article brings up a depressingly large number of authors who wrote their masterpieces while they were under 40:

 "Unsurprisingly, in youth-obsessed America, writers have often done their best work early. Melville was 32 when “Moby-Dick” was published (after the successes of “Typee” and “Omoo”). The writers of the lost generation found their voices when they were very young: Fitz­gerald (28, “The Great Gatsby”), Hemingway (27, “The Sun Also Rises”). Faulkner lagged slightly behind. He had just turned 32 when “The Sound and the Fury” was published. Then again, it was his fourth novel.

The celebrated post-World War II generation was just as precocious. Norman Mailer was only 25 when “The Naked and the Dead,” his classic, and enormous, war novel came out. And James Jones’s even longer work, “From Here to Eternity,” was published when he was 29. The indefatigable warhorses who grew up in the 1950s were also good very young: Joyce Carol Oates (31, “Them,” her fifth novel); Philip Roth (26, “Goodbye Columbus”); John Updike (28, “Rabbit, Run”); Thomas Pynchon (26, “V.”)."
I have no illusions of being the next Roth, or Updike, or Pynchon.  Still, one of the reasons I left the music industry is its relentless focus on youth.  I envy my girlfriend her slow development as a fine artist; she is not likely to produce masterworks in her twenties.  Instead, her early years are supposed to be full of struggle as she searches for her voice and vision.  Only later, after mastering her craft, will she produce her greatest work.

Perhaps this is another boneheaded bit of conventional wisdom; perhaps all our flames burn faster than we would prefer.

Still, I am heartened by Tanehaus' following list of writers who found their genius late.

"Joseph Conrad didn’t become a major writer until his 40s (after long years at sea). Katherine Anne Porter was 40 when her first short-story collection was published. Virginia Woolf entered her prime in her 40s. Norman Rush’s first novel wasn’t published until he was in his 50s. Nor is it to say that brilliant young novelists don’t mature into greater ones. Henry James peaked at about 60. Roth reached an extraordinary phase in his 60s. The Bellow of “Herzog” (49) is a greater artist than the Bellow of “The Adventures of Augie March” (38), which itself introduced a wholly new aesthetic to the English-language novel. And the Don DeLillo of “Underworld” (60) far surpasses the DeLillo of “End Zone” (35)."

I would be honored to be part of that list.  Perhaps my late turn to writing prevented me from blossoming into the next Normal Mailer.  But maybe it gifted me with a wealth of experiences to become the next Virginia Woolf.

The turmoil of my late teenage years and early 20s have left me with less prose but more memories than many writers my age.  I have walked in many shoes in many cities around the world.  With diligence, this straw can become gold.  Because, as Tanehaus closes, "Now, as then, the most meaningful 'fight' waged by literary artists is interior. Their principal adversary is not a noisy culture or inattentive readers. It is themselves."

That's a fight I can win, no matter what my age.

Monday, June 21, 2010


"Reckoning" birthed itself, as most worthwhile ideas do.  I had been sitting at my computer all day, taunted by a blank screen and terrible dead-end beginnings.  So, in desperation, I turned to an old exercise from a high school writing class; I re-imagined a childhood memory.  It was easy to find the right one since my writing room is frigid.

The next step was to find out what kind of person would have such a memory.  Sean came into being, and I pitied and admired him from the start.  He is not an exceptional man (except for his outstanding navigational skills) but he is a good man.  Unlike some of the other characters, he does not desire glory or power.  He is not suited for extraordinary times, although those are the times in which he lives.

This week, please enjoy the first section of "Reckoning."  Taste the bite of its dead air; blink back the blinding light of its endless winter.  We won't stay there forever.  Next week, we'll head back in time, to the beginning of The End.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Goblin King

I am not particularly enamored with corporate holidays like Mother's Day and Father's Day.  I'd like to think that my parents know how much I love them every day, with or without presents, and certainly without horridly unfunny Hallmark cards.

This Father's Day, though, has particular meaning.  A few months ago, I started writing "The Goblin Prince."  The idea appeared in my mind during a bus ride.  It felt true and right, and I almost started crying.  Luckily, I stifled the tears lest my friends discover my insanity and/or menopause.

As a children's book author, much of my time is spent thinking parenthood.  What does it mean to be a parent?  What do we teach our children, and what do we let them discover for themselves?

The title character of "The Goblin Prince" is Agorot.  He, like all children, has wild dreams.  Hetsi, the goblin king, is Agorot's father and rules their subterranean kingdom.  They disagree about the direction in which the goblins should dig.  Hetsi wants them to dig down as they always have, while Agorot wants to see the sky and stars.

Many families find themselves at this crossroads, when the dreams of children and parents diverge.  I know my grandfather wanted my father to follow in his footsteps and become a doctor.  He never let go of this, even on his deathbed, even though my father became a successful attorney.  It is hard for parents to watch their children head down unfamiliar roads, into worlds with unfamiliar dangers.

But as Hetsi realizes, a parent's role is not to tell a child what to dream but to give him the tools to achieve his dreams.

So, on this Father's Day, I would like to thank my father for a rare gift.  Throughout my short but blessed life, his love has carried me toward the sky.  Together, we have tunneled through the long dark to see the stars together.

Thank you, Dad.  I love you.  I will always be your goblin prince, and you my goblin king.