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The Sporting Life

December 5, 2011 | by

Photograph by Nick Kenrick.

It didn’t make sense to speak as we walked along an empty path by a lake in western Ireland, since the wind would carry only the sound of itself and of the rain against the stones and grass, and since there wasn’t much to say anyway. I tried not to picture our hotel, where there was a fire and books, and a tray of coffee and slabs of cake. Instead I stared at a sheep ahead huddled with some rocks.

Bone-soaked, half numb, and disoriented, I thought of a little book I had recently read by John Casey, Room for Improvement: Notes on a Dozen Lifelong Sports. It is a lovely but peculiar collection of essays about his various athletic endeavors. Most of his activities are of the lonely, unwatched variety, like canoeing, sailing, and long-distance running. Casey spends a lot of time rowing a dinghy.

Casey’s book is not really about a dozen sports (is rowing a dinghy a sport?). This book is about being sporting, about being a sportsman. What qualifies as a sport here is whatever encourages the cultivation of character. A sportsman is not merely athletic; he is fair and brave. He can read maps, tie knots, sleep in the snow, quote the Odyssey. He can take care of himself, though he is generous and self-deprecating. He is an ideal man from another era, an era that idealized its own nostalgia, too. Read More »


It Never Gets Old

June 6, 2011 | by

Photograph by Alex Livesey.

When an athlete grows old, when she slips and starts making errors, you say that her body betrays her. What you mean is that she betrays you. A superhuman should not age. So you punish her with your attention, with your nostalgia and condescension, and also with your neglect. You turn your gaze to the young.

For the first two weeks of this year’s French Open, that’s what happened. Sure, younger players had earned the spotlight. Novak Djokovic was in the middle of one of the longest win streaks in the history of tennis. If he made the French Open final, he would become number one. For his part, Rafa Nadal was looking to equal Björn Borg’s record of six French Open titles. No one expected much of Roger Federer. Even Anna Wintour, who sat in Federer’s box in Paris, had more or less conceded Djokovic’s dominance, featuring the Serb in tiny swimming briefs in the pages of Vogue, where once Roger had been king. Federer is twenty-nine years old.

On the women’s side, the favorite was a beautiful blonde Dane, Caroline Wozniacki, twenty years old. She had never won a major, but never mind. The defending champion, Francesca Schiavone, who has hollow cheeks and a habit of kissing the dirt, wasn’t given a chance. Some thought her win last year—she had been seeded seventeenth—was a fluke, and besides she is ancient, nearly thirty-one. But Wozniacki lost in the third round, and when the finals arrived Schiavone was there again, and this time playing the twenty-nine-year-old Li Na, best known for being Asian and having a tattoo.

“With a combined age of sixty years seventy-nine days, Li and Schiavone make up the oldest French Open final pairing since 1986,” said The New York Times. Li and Schiavone were pressed to explain their advanced ages. “Is like the wine,” Schiavone said. “Stay in the bottle more is much, much better.”

“I’m not old,” Li Na insisted. “Why do you think I’m old?”

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The Skiing Life

March 22, 2011 | by

Our Spring Revel is on April 12, and starting today, The Daily will feature a series of essays celebrating James Salter, who is being honored this year with The Paris Review’s Hadada Prize. If you’re interested in purchasing tickets to the Revel, click here.

I read There and Then: The Travel Writing of James Salter for the parts about skiing the way one reads A Sport and a Pastime for the sex. In fact Salter writes about skiing the way he writes about sex: as something luminous, clean, somehow moral. This was a few years ago, when I was obsessed with skiing; I thought about it all the time. In Salter I sensed a sympathetic hunger, the longing for something transcendent, pointless, permanent, and always vanishing. There aren’t many good authors who write about skiing. Hemingway does a little. Salter does it a lot, as a way of writing about something else, just as writing about sex is a way of writing about other things: beauty, courage, obsession, mastery—mostly, someone else’s mastery.

When I skied, or when I thought about skiing, a beautiful skier would stop me in my tracks. He would slide over a lip into a bowl or glade, or drop into a little chute out of bounds. His solid body would become liquid, slipping through the snow, as he found the fall line. I would watch his back and then fly after him, tracking him, fearless and afraid. “What enables you to learn?” Salter asks. “It’s simple: desire.”

In “The Skiing Life,” Salter describes learning to ski from an instructor:

Follow me closely, he says, as if you can, turn where I turn. Trying to do what he does, forgetting some things, remembering others, somehow you follow. The trail is narrowing, you are going faster than you should and farther, beyond your endurance … One morning you awake unaware that, mysteriously, something has changed. This day it comes to you … All day, run after run, filled with an immense, unequaled happiness, and at the end into town together, down the last, easy slopes, and so weary that you fall asleep after supper in your ski clothes, the lights burning throughout the night.

There are of course some who don’t need to learn, some who are almost born with it. Kids who grow up on eastern mountains are at home on ice and cruddy snow, although they dream of powder days. The kids out west have no idea how lucky they are. It is thrilling to watch a child hurtle past. You can see her future: she will slip through bumps, sleep on the floor, hike up mountains to ski down them. She will be powerful and fast. Years later, you will spot her from the chairlift, graceful and unmistakable. Even on my best days, the days when I belonged to the mountains, I would look for that girl. “There is always that lone skier,” Salter writes, “oddly dressed, off to the side past the edge of the run, going down where it is steepest and the snow untouched, in absolute grace, marking each dazzling turn with a brief jab of the pole—there is always him, the skier you cannot be.”

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Hustle and Flow

November 4, 2010 | by

Dear Will,

It’s often said that a loss hurts more than a victory can heal. As a rule, it might be true, but it didn’t seem so on Monday night. After fifty-six years of waiting, the Giants finally won the World Series, and San Francisco set itself on fire.

Lee pitched a hell of a game. Hats off to him—he is the beau ideal, I’ll give you that. But give me the weird one; give me Tim Lincecum. At rest, slouchy and loose, wearing a grimy, graying cap, he looks like a teenager cupping a spliff in his hand. But then he begins. The torque—the spring—the splits—the snap! His coaches call his motion “flow.” He did not dominate the Rangers so much as confound them. Mighty hitters were reduced to awkward little jerks of the bat. Remarkably, he may not even be the Giants’ best pitcher—Matt Cain threw more than twenty-one scoreless innings in the postseason—but he’s the best to watch.

I nearly missed it all. As it happens, when the game began, I was at Lincoln Center. The tickets had been purchased long ago, back when it looked like the Giants might not even make the playoffs. The Dresden Staatskappelle was playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4. I think it was nice, but I wasn’t really playing attention. Instead, I was sitting in the back row, pressing refresh on my Blackberry. One scoreless inning, two… Ah! Perfido was next on the program. Ah, Perfido?! I bolted and headed to the nearest bar.

I’m very fond of these Giants. They came upon me by surprise. Then again, not totally. The Giants were my dad’s team growing up. He used to tell me about Willie Mays, who played with power and with passion and who smiled. He had a pigeon-toed gait, bowlegs, long arms, and a barrel chest. A strange specimen. A Giant! It’s been a pleasure watching the World Series with you, Will. Better luck next year!



A World Series Serenity Prayer

November 1, 2010 | by

Photograph by FrozenInLight.

Dear Will,

I trust you had a good time as a Giants fan last night. Is it too much to hope you’ll remain one? As our kind readers have assured me, the San Francisco bandwagon has room for all. I can’t imagine why you’d want to leave it—the Giants are too much fun. Last night they put a lanky kid named Madison Bumgarner on the mound. He recently bought a bull calf for his wife’s birthday. (She requested it.) He’s twenty-one years old, their number-four starter, but he pitched a game for the ages.

Of course, he had help. We’ve been talking about pitching and hitting—what about fielding? Josh Hamilton probably had the highlight last night, with a slip-'n'-slide catch in center to save an RBI single, but the Giants played a monster defensive game. Cody Ross continued his postseason heroics by making a grab on the slide. The infielders spun double plays with abandon (and a little good playacting, fooling the umps on at least one occasion). And I don’t think I’ll ever forget the sight of Freddy Sanchez flinging himself up and back to snare a shot that seemed destined for right field. Fully extended, leaning back blindly, somersaulting to protect the precariously held ball—it was a leap of faith.

Faith in himself and in physics, in the determined arc of a batted ball. Who needs gods when you have such gloves? The Giants’ first two wins had commentators giving credit to the alignment of the stars. ESPN’s Jayson Stark invoked the heavens so many times that I started to think he was serious. In game 4, the Giants proved once and for all that the answer to their success is simple: They’re really, really good, better than the Rangers! They’re lucky, too. Luck is part of the game. The Giants control what they can control, and they shrug off the rest.

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The San Francisco Freak Show

October 27, 2010 | by

“The Freak” by Robert Marosi Bustamante. Courtesy of George Krevsky Gallery and private collector, California.

Dear Will,

The Texas Rangers made a strong bid for my allegiance too, and not just because Neftali Feliz roped A-Rod with that curve to clinch the American League championship. There’s something ebullient and, yes, winning about the Rangers. They’re slightly cocky, sweet, and sly, smiling like they’ve gotten away with something—which, as you point out, several of them have. (And don’t forget catcher Bengie Molina, traded by the Giants to the Rangers over the summer; he’ll get a ring regardless of who wins.) I love to watch Josh Hamilton’s swing, injured ribs or not—the long extension and the letting go. And I love to watch Elvis Andrus dash around the base paths—so foolish, so daring. Still, there’s something a little too Manifest Destiny about the team. I can’t help but think of the Rangers’ former owner, George W. Bush, not to mention James K. Polk.

So I’ll take San Francisco, thanks. The Giants call their style of baseball “torture,” their star “the Freak,” their NLCS MVP “Cody” (I don’t care if that’s his real name). I’m smitten with a kid named Buster Posey. Willie Mays, the “Say Hey Kid,” would fit right in. The Giants hit home runs, or not at all. And their pitching! This team plays baseball like it’s a great game of catch with diverting interruptions. The whole team is weird and improbable. After Juan Uribe homered in the eighth to break a tie in game 6 of the NLCS, Phillies Manager Charlie Manuel said, “The big blow was by what’s his name? The shortstop.” Never mind that Uribe was playing third base. Plus, when the game was over, I got to do my best imitation of Russ Hodges hollering, “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!” (My grandfather was at the game where Bobby Thomson hit his famous shot and swore he’d never attend another game—baseball couldn’t get any better.)

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