Death and Football

[Content note: Jokes about death and violence]

This is a true story I wrote in 2014. I’m publishing it on the request of Penelope Laurans, who received it from Anne Fadiman after the story was told at a dinner commemorating the very strange history of Yale football. Of my 273 blog drafts, it was perhaps the one I least expected to publish, but life is also very strange.

If you aren’t sure whether to read this, go to the end and look at the photo. Then, if you want to know the story of the photo, read this. (Spoiler warning.)


It was an October Monday, the night of The Yale Record’s weekly meeting.

We were brainstorming slogans for t-shirts to commemorate the 130th annual Harvard-Yale game (“The Game”), and preparing to sell said shirts so that we might someday commemorate the magazine’s second straight year of not being in debt.

The administration often threatened to take away our office if we didn’t toe the line, so we had to abandon our best idea: John Harvard crucified on the letter Y.

After that, we held a public vote, and resolved to print t-shirts with the two most popular slogans. It doesn’t matter what they were. What matters for my story is the third:

“Whoever wins, our lives will end equally … IN DEATH.”

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A Futile Attempt To Review The Book of Disquiet

“This is my most-highlighted book of the year. It is about a man who avoids interacting with other people whenever possible, lives for the sake of his daydreams, and would rather not be alive at all — less because he feels depressed than because life is boring.

“I… still don’t understand why I like this book as much as I do.”

Aaron Gertler, The Best Books of My 2015

 

The Book of Disquiet is remarkably difficult to talk about. And yet, when a stranger messaged me on Facebook because they’d seen that I was a fan, we wound up talking about it for an hour, stumbling around in circles trying to explain the way we felt.

(Reviewing the book is like trying to make up a new language in the middle of a conversation.)

 

The book’s Goodreads entry features nothing but four-and-five-star reviews on the first page. The second page, along with lots of additional praise, contains:

  • A single one-star review, which appears to be ironic (“it is the very fact of its valuelessness that gives it its value”).
  • A three-star review where the reviewer becomes furious at Pessoa for writing only half of a brilliant book, when — like a loving parent — they know he could have done better.

It would seem that, for any common definition of “hate”, The Book of Disquiet is almost impossible to hate. And that seems right. Can you hate the air you breathe? Can you hate the ground on which you walk? Can you hate sleep?

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Area Writer Applies To The New York Times, Fails

Part II in my very occasional series on applications that don’t succeed.

Why I do this: Most people who apply for prestigious positions fail, and it seems healthy to acknowledge that truth. Otherwise, we end up in a world where all we can see are the triumphs of the people around us, in stark contrast to our own failures. (Some people refer to this as “Facebook envy”.)

So I’m swimming against the tide, by showcasing the times I wrote something with all my might, only to receive a rejection letter.

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The Best Books of My 2017

Brought to you by the library system of the University of California, San Diego.

This is the fourth in a series of annual book reviews:

I read fewer books this year than in 2016, thanks to a new marriage and a few online serials that consumed a lot of reading time. But I’ve improved my selection process: I’m finishing more of the books I start, and learning more from the books I finish. As a result, I’d put this year’s class up against any of the other years in a… book fight?

(My Goodreads account has a rating for every book I remember reading.)

The Best Books

The first five are, in order, the books that I’ve thought about most often this year, and that I remember most vividly. The rest appear in no particular order.

  1. Ache Life History
  2. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up
  3. Tools of Titans
  4. Against Democracy
  5. The Damnation of Theron Ware (free to read online, from Project Gutenberg)
  6. Hitch-22
  7. Killers of the Dream
  8. The Subjection of Women (free to read online, from Early Modern Texts)
  9. Intelligence: A Very Short Introduction
  10. Maverick
  11. War
  12. Hard to Be a God
  13. Annihilation
  14. The Traitor Baru Cormorant
  15. The Gods Are Bastards (free to read online)

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The Lightning Bat of Jason Jones

Jason Jones was not a natural athlete. He barely scraped by, even on his high school baseball team. But he’d always dreamed of playing in the majors. And he had a good heart. That’s the most important thing, in this kind of story.

One fateful night, as Jason walked home from practice, rain began to pour. Thunder boomed. Lightning struck a nearby tree. (Well, the thunder came after the lightning, of course, but it’s more dramatic this way.)

The tree caught fire, but was soon extinguished by the rain. Jason knew fate when he saw it. He took a sturdy chunk of lumber from the lightning tree, then carved it into a bat — which he just called “the Lightning Bat”, because he wasn’t a natural nomenclaturist, either. He wasn’t a very thoughtful boy in general. But we did mention the good heart, right?

Anyway, thoughtful or no, Jason was a mean hand with a lathe, so the bat came out smooth and powerful. At his next high-school game, hit a ball so hard it almost disintegrated on its way over the outfield fence. A few spectators noticed a flash of light at the moment of contact, but they all figured it came from the camera held by a stranger in the stands.

The stranger turned out to be a major-league scout. After seeing that phenomenal home run, he bought young Jason a ticket for the next train to Cleveland. Soon, the boy was up to bat for the Indians, who occupied the cellar of the American League standings and were willing to try just about anyone.

(The employment contracts in those days were loose and flexible. Things are different now, for reasons that will soon become clear.)

# # # # #

Jason stared into the eyes of Tommy Castro, the ace of the Boston Red Sox. Confidence surged through his veins. He held the Lightning Bat over his shoulder, practically twitching with anticipation.

Castro wound up and fired. A fastball.

Jason still stood with the bat over his shoulder. He hadn’t moved an inch. He hadn’t even seen the pitch go by. Strike One.

Another fastball. Jason swung and missed by a mile. Strike Two.

(As it turns out, a major-league pitcher is much better at throwing than a mediocre high-school batter is at hitting, even if the latter wields a bat charged with the force of a thunderstorm.)

Another fastball. Low and outside — just a bit too far outside. Ball One.

Jason still couldn’t see the damn thing. He felt his dream draining away. But the bat sparked and buzzed in his hands, beckoning him to give it one more try. Power swelled up in the barrel. The sweet spot began to glow.

Another fastball. Last chance.

Jason swung the Lightning Bat harder than he ever had before. By some accident of timing, he connected, with a crack that deafened the crowd and a white-blue flash that struck them momentarily blind.

It was a line drive, practically sideways, foul from the moment of contact — and fast. So fast that the ball obliterated a section of the stands above the Cleveland dugout, leaving a forty-foot crater that crackled with electricity.

Thirty-eight people died, and Jason Jones went to prison for the rest of his life.

# # # # #

Eight years later, under new management, the Indians finally won a World Series. By that time, the scout who found Jason Jones was working as a forest ranger in Alaska, spending his nights alone with a bottle of whiskey and a radio tuned to anything but baseball.

There was one silver lining: Nowadays, high-school athletes around the country learn from their coaches in an annual, mandatory lecture — at least in public schools — not to mess around with elemental magic. That shit is dangerous.

This story is a revised version of a submission that reached the final round of cuts at Flash Fiction Online. Thanks to the editors for their helpful comments!

 

The Sad Story of Marilee Jones

David Edmondsdon, the former CEO of Radioshack, was fired because he falsely claimed to have a theology degree from an unaccredited Bible college.

At least, that’s what Radioshack said. There may have been other reasons, but newspapers took the college story seriously, even though it was ridiculous. Why does learning about your CEO’s lack of a theology degree matter, once you’ve seen him perform decades of competent work?

But even that story isn’t as crazy as…

 

The MIT Scandal

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CPR: A Heroic Thought Experiment

Imagine that an all-knowing genie manifests in your bedroom.

The genie tells you that sometime in the next ten years, you will have a chance to save a total stranger from dying by performing CPR.

But you don’t know when it will happen, and there’s no guarantee you’ll succeed when the time comes.

How would you respond? How would your life change, from that moment?

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