Monthly Archives: July 2013

Crouching Eric, Hidden Heisman

Considering the literary nature of my last post and my piece about reading fiction that preceded it, this topic may seem like a harsh contrast. In today’s oft-compartmentalized culture, books and sports rarely intersect. Sure, there are books about sports, but the entities in themselves seem to occupy two separate spheres. Literature is for nerds and sports are for jocks, right? But as someone who spent the majority of his childhood engrossed in a world of pick-up games, high school football training camps, and the incessant glow of the behemoth bug zapper that is ESPN, I’ve been, perhaps unconsciously, trying to reconcile my new love for literature with my first love of sports and the demigods who play them. And while I’ve never found any justification for the sort of obsession that turns great athletes into idols and grown men into their kneeling peons, I have concluded that my love for these games comes from the same impulse that keeps me coming back to Steinbeck, McCarthy, and Duncan. It’s because they’re stories. But before I spiral into a discourse about underdogs and juggernauts, Cinderella’s and Jackie Robinson’s, I want to tell you about a strange encounter that brought all these thoughts to a flesh and bones revelation.

This past Saturday, my extended family and I took part in an event called “The Big10 10K and 5K.” Almost all my cousins, aunts and uncles made the journey from Omaha, Nebraska to support their football-adoring Alma Mater, The University of Nebraska, in a good ole’ fashioned footrace along the lakeshore south of Soldier Field. And while I waywardly opted to spend my college time in Southern California, nearly 2,000 miles from the cornhusker state, the aforementioned sports-obsessed kid once believed that Lincoln would one day be his college home, too. I tend to think that boyhood sports-worship reaches its zenith sometime around the age of 12, which, in my life, happened to be the era when the Cornhuskers were making a run for the NCAA National Championship, led by their fleet-footed, Omaha-born-and-bred Heisman Trophy winning Quarterback, Eric Crouch. Needless to say, Crouch was my guy. I watched him take it 102 yards to the house against Missouri (http://tiny.cc/db9z0w) , and promptly ran myself ragged in my backyard trying to imitate him. I still wear his jersey on occasion, albeit a tad ironically.

But this is where the story of the hometown boy who won the Heisman gets a little predictable, a little sad. After that triumphant year, Crouch went on to do, well, nothing. He was picked up by the St. Louis Rams late in the draft, but retired shortly thereafter because they wouldn’t let him play Quarterback, and because he couldn’t hack it at any other position. He was too small. Couldn’t throw. He wasn’t fit for the bruising life of an NFL QB, and according to reports, too proud to take a minor role. So he hung up his cleats and, in the fashion of 90 percent of Will Ferrell’s characters, faded into obscurity. Rumors surfaced that he was managing a Lady Footlocker. To Husker fans, he was a quitter.  In a state where hard-nosedness is as much a staple in its people’s DNA as a love of avocadoes is in Californians’, his was not a legacy worth celebrating.

Now, these claims very well could be Grade-A Sports Reporter Boloney, but nonetheless, Eric Crouch faded from view. And up until this past Saturday, that obscurity that Eric faded into was enough to keep any idea of him, or of the tremendous admiration that I had for him as a kid, out of my mind completely. But that all changed at the post-race tailgate party/Big10 fun-fest when, while polishing off my second free Bratwurst, I saw him.  There he was—the Eric Crouch—in the same jersey that was still hanging in my closet, meandering by the football target-throwing competition. The race was, after all, a giant promotional event for the Big10 network and the upcoming football season, and apparently, he was there as one of a few former players working for the network for some meet-and-greet. In an instant, I was my 12 year-old self again, weaving through the crowd to get a closer look at my old Husker hero. I found a comfortable spot to observe him in the football toss; about three feet away. And like any creepy fanboy, I watched him for a while. I watched him stretch out his arm before stepping into to throw a couple balls at an inflatable target. I watched him narrowly miss the target on his first 3 throws, and then on his final attempt, I watched the hopeful anticipation spread across his face when he released the ball, and the following look of triumph, his arms thrust in the air like he’d once again beaten Oklahoma in the conference championship with his Golden Arm, when the toss rattled through the bull’s-eye. And after standing there for a while, just watching this guy who was once my hero, who was now tossing footballs at a press event, I realized that I was wrestling with two different stories. The first story was about the hero and the kids like me who’d worshipped him, which terminated as soon as his career ended, and the second was what everyone said about him in the years that followed: the story of the quitter, the has-been living out past triumphs, desperate to have the glory back.

I could easily write this off as a comical coincidence, as the day I met an old hero and made fun of him behind his back. But as my dad and I waited in line for our turn to take a couple tosses, he decided to talk to Eric. They talked about growing up in Omaha, the proximity of their homes to a popular pizza place, and the school that Eric’s kids were now going to. They talked about his new job with the Big10 network, where he would try his hand at sports casting. I stood next to them, gawking in disbelief. The stories were meeting before my eyes, and their validity was obliterating with every commonplace topic that they conversed about. Here was a man who I’d only seen on TV, who I’d imitated in my backyard, and whose successes and failures had been scrutinized and packaged by reporters for my viewing pleasure, talking with my own father about highways in Omaha.

Eric Crouch’s story was suddenly much larger, much more complex, than any bottled sports cliché that ESPN might have led me to believe. It was somehow weaving its way into mine and into my father’s. It was a story about a man who’d shined bright, flickered out, then kept going, kept living. It was familiar, close enough for me to touch, yet too different for me to fully grasp.

And this is what I mean when I say that sports are just as much about stories as books. Not because they adhere to some simple narrative formula, as some 10-minute pre-game slots might suggest, but because they have a way of serendipitously revealing something to us about ourselves. Because, despite the fact that a camera lens has a way of imparting its subjects—the athletes—with a sort of disconnected immortality, their stories carry on outside of the game.

Because sports allow a unique glimpse into the mystery of our existence, one that is characterized not just by the moments of athletic brilliance on the field, but by the players who walk away from it and keep on living.

The List to Start and Finish: The Best Fiction I’ve Read So Far

So, if you read the piece I just wrote for RelevantMagazine.com, consider this post the practical follow-up. It was a piece called “Why Christians Should Read More Fiction,” and if you haven’t read it, go ahead and check it out. If you already read fiction, than you probably have your own favorite novels and you have no need for my recommendations. But if you, like many people I know, haven’t seriously picked up a piece of fiction since you finished the last book of Harry Potter with tears in your eyes, or since you decided once and for all in High School that Spark Notes was, well, just better for your busy schedule as a 15-year old, I hope you give these titles a shot. Please, I’m not trying to guilt-trip you. I’m more doing that thing where, say, your friend comes back from a fun, activity filled day at the beach or in the city or at a Golden Retriever Festival, a day when you decided you’d rather stay home and catch up on Mad Men, and unashamedly bludgeons you with how unforgettable the day was. It’s kind of like that. But wait, there’s still hope, because these books aren’t going anywhere.

But the catch is that you actually have to commit to reading them, and as you’ll see with some of them, this is no small task. But the quicker you get reading, the quicker you’ll meet the characters who you’ll carry with you forever, the quicker you’ll find yourself entrenched in these character’s worlds, and the quicker you’ll be blown away. I can’t say for sure if you will be blown away in the exact way that I was, but that’s why I chose these books. Because they all have that blow-away quality about them.

This is the top 5 in a semi-particular order, but you should realize that these are all my “desert island books,” so to say. Starting from 5, I’ll work my way to my favorite book of all time. And you may be surprised by the lack of classics on the list. When I first started reading novels, I would just go to the bookstore and look for names that I’d heard of on the shelves. The thing is, the only names I’d ever heard of were the old heroes. So, I started with the Classics, and occasionally found something that really roused me. But after studying those books for three years in college and long before that in high school, I decided somewhere along the way that I would give the new guys a shot. And there’s this tendency to think that all the good writing has already been done. But I can assure you, that is absolutely not the case. You should certainly read the classics, but they’re the easy ones to find. This list should set you off on a path to explore different avenues of contemporary fiction, whether it’s with each of these author’s entire canons, or with comparable writers.

5. The Things They Carried: Tim O’Brien TOB001_2

It’s been a while since I’ve read this book, and unlike every author on this list, it’s the only book of his that I’ve read. And that doesn’t mean that I read this book and had no further interest in reading his others. Actually, the opposite. It means that I read it once and was convinced that this was one of the most beautiful books I’d ever encountered. The book is a fictional account of Tim O’Brien’s real-life experiences in Vietnam, and the way he pieces the stories together, which dance back and forth between life before, during, and after the war, give the whole book a dream-like quality, where you find yourself wondering what’s real, what’s PTSD nightmare, and what’s plain made up. If you don’t like war books, then I suggest you compromise and read just this one war book. You can be finished after that if you so please. Here’s a beautiful quote. It’s one among thousands.

 And in the end, of course, a true war story is never about war. It’s about sunlight. It’s about the special way that dawn spreads out on a river when you know you must cross the river and march into the mountains and do things you are afraid to do. It’s about love and memory. It’s about sorrow. It’s about sisters who never write back and people who never listen.

4. Let The Great World Spin: Colum McCannartistic-book-cover

If you’re the type who likes reading and I’ve spoken to you at any point in the last year, I’ve probably recommended this book to you. Colum McCann writes poetically about the chaos that is New York City in the 70’s, and though he’s a born and bred Dubliner, you’d think he’s actually a ghost who’s wandered NYC for the last 50 years. In my piece about fiction, I mentioned the empathy that it can inspire. I mostly had this guy in mind. McCann embodies what can be called Shakespearean Conciousness, which is the ability to explore, on a level of immense depth, the psychological experiences of total strangers. It’s called that because Shakespeare did it first—and possibly still, best—but when you see the range of characters that McCann brings alive, you might have second thoughts. A mother-daughter pair of prostitutes, a 30-something Irish ascetic monk living in the projects, the District Attorney, a Puerto Rican graffiti artist, and a French tight rope walker who saunters casually between the Twin Towers, to name a few. And may I add that the prose, ah the prose, is beyond gorgeous. There are moments of pure poetry. Like this:

 The core reason for it all was beauty. Walking was a divine delight. Everything was rewritten when he was up in the air. New things were possible with the human form. It went beyond equilibrium. He felt for a moment uncreated. Another kind of awake.

Go get it. Now.

3. The Road: Cormac McCarthyThe-Road-cover

Don’t even get me started on this one. This book sent me on a 6-month long journey down the rabbit hole of McCarthy’s mesmerizing work,  and it’s been a hell of a ride. McCarthy’s actually quite scary, in a way, I have to say. At first look, he has that monotonous drawl of Hemingway, but then at the same time, he’s Faulkner, doting the journalistic descriptions with images of mind-bending beauty. But for some reason, you keep on trusting him. I can’t really explain why, but, well, just trust me.

Everything in this novel is stripped. The prose is void of all punctuation, and the scarred, post-apocalyptic American landscape is somehow more desolate. All that really matters is a father and son and the fire that they carry.

2. East of Eden: John SteinbeckEast-of-Eden

Sometimes when I’m sitting at my desk, I look over at my worn, dog-eared copy of this book and feel a bit like Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park, when he looks down at the shaking glass of water and knows that a T-Rex is right around the corner. In my own literary life, East of Eden is a T-Rex. The earth shakes when I pick it up. As far as my love for books, it started everything, and also tore everything down. It’s immensely allegorical and haunting and beautiful the whole way through. It’s nothing short of an epic, and a big commitment to get through it, but I dare you, no I triple-dog dare you not to cry when you finish. And I know that evoking an emotional response is not necessarily the point, but this book has everything. It’s structurally mesmerizing, intellectually challenging, spiritually enriching and probing, and all in all, life-changing. I can also tell you that the Mumford and Sons song “Timshel” will suddenly make a lot more sense to you after reading this book.

So go meet Samuel Hamilton and Adam Trask and Lee and Cal and Aron. I assure you, you won’t forget them.

1.The Brothers K: David James Duncan:{A537E506-06C7-4291-920A-DD0B8AB9473B}Img400

I realize at this point that my explanations are getting a little rambling, and the thought of attempting to summarize the beauty of this book is making me sweat. The story focuses on the journey of the Chance family, specifically the turbulent experiences of 4 vastly different brothers: Everett the loud-mouthed but hilarious bull-horn activist, Irwin the God-fearing, tenderhearted mountain of a man, Peter the poet-pacifist, and Kincaid the young observer of it all—and their gruff but sincere father Hugh, a washed-up pitcher with a dead thumb and alcoholic tendencies. Baseball—yes, baseball—is the thread that carries the narrative and brings them all together as they wrestle with everything from Grace to Vietnam.

A quote:

It’s incredible to me how blithely even intelligent people sometimes toss around terms like “transcendence” and “crucifixion.” The words move us on paper. They feel noble upon the tongue. But when they cease to be sounds and begin to caress the flesh and bones, when they leave the page and get physical, there is little that even the best of us woudn’t do to escape them.

And:

You, me, & your papa are 3 of the tiny percentage of souls on this miserable earth who’ve figured out that playing ball is the highest purpose God ever invented the human male body for.

These quotes are meaningless to you now, but they give me chills to type.

There’s nothing more that I can say. Go find out what a “Psalm Ball” is, and maybe later we can talk about the ones we’re trying to throw.

Enough of my rambling. Pick one of these, and go.