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A Reading Life: The High School Chronicles, or, On Not Being That Kid in the Lunchroom

Saturday, June 12, 2010

I have sometimes wished, when talking to other literature professors or graduate students, even some unusually bright undergraduates, that I had, like them, been reading precociously in my teenage years. Some of the people in academia that I have come to respect most, not only for their intelligence, but for retaining their humanity and compassion, share the experience of having read in high school Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, and Sartre, among others. Some academics say this with the same air of faux embarrassment and poorly concealed pride with which they throw up their arms in helplessness when confronted with a mathematics problem more complicated that “2 + x = 4. Solve for ‘x’.”: “Oh, I just don’t get numbers!” But the people I have in mind – just a few really -- don’t brag about it. On the contrary, they say it almost sheepishly, certainly with a little regret – as though it indicated an adolescence that was unhappy and perhaps also a little off balance. Maybe they seem not quite at ease with the choices they made in that time, or at least wish that different choices had been available to them. Still, though it seems to be part of a painful memory for them, and though I feel bad for them for that painful time, the feeling still asserts itself: I wish I had been like you.

I’m not even sure what I imagine them being like exactly. It’s not a precise image, and I doubt very much it corresponds to how anybody really felt. But it’s something like this: they are dressed with a modest, but definitely individual style, in clothes that haven’t cost much, if any, money. They are alone much of the time, perhaps in the lunch room, off by themselves. But not because nobody will sit with them, though some people – like me – might both want to sit with them and be afraid to sit with them; and not because they hate people, hate us, but just because they would simply rather be reading their book and that’s easier to do if you are sitting alone. They have found something, these inhabitants of my imagination, some sort of place of calm belonging, something that feels, in my imagination, like being really at home. In my imagination, they exude a kind of unself-conscious confidence and self-sufficiency. I know this isn’t how they felt inside – after all, they were adolescents like the rest of us. But it’s how they appear in my imagination and maybe it’s what gets under my skin about them, what makes me not be able to resist looking over my shoulder one last time as my friends and I leave the lunchroom. Boy or girl that person somehow magnetizes my attention and my desire. I want “that” -- what they seem to have, and that includes the fact that they don’t seem to be trying very hard to have it or to hold on to it.

Let me clarify that this is not a memory of anything or anyone I every actually remember seeing in my high school. It's an imaginary reconstruction of the past of some people I have known in which I take the detail of their having read precociously and use it as the basis to build a character I then insert into my own real memories of high school. This is not the nerdy kid abjectly sitting alone eating a sad lunch. This is not the self-consciously posing James Dean or Christian Slater-in-"Heathers" loner, over dressing the part and, in fact, inviting attention. This might be my friend Gaurav, a former undergraduate of mine, sitting alone at a table in the far corner (alone and in the corner only because that is the best place to read because of sound and light). Perhaps he has already eaten and the lunchbag or, more likely, lunch tray are pushed off to the side. He leans slightly back in the hard metal chair (because it is more comfortable), but not so far back that the front legs come off the floor (because that would be ostentatious). He is wearing jeans, a tee-shirt, and a plaid flannel shirt that is partly unbuttoned. He is not wearing black Chuck Taylor sneakers, nor Chuck Taylor sneakers of any other color, but rather some relatively low-budget, now-dingy white, low-top athletic type shoe.

By contrast, I too am a confident, self-sufficient adolescent – so long as I am on the basketball court, soccer field, or surrounded by a group of classmates in the aura of whose universally acknowledged coolness I can bathe. These things are like drugs for me, I guess. And when I’m not on the court, field, or in a group, I am anxious, constantly measuring myself and finding myself wanting. I can only feel good about myself when something or someone outside me – a coach, fans, other kids – are reflecting back at me that I am, in fact, worthwhile. So even on the court, field, and among friends, though I am not anxious, I am not really at home because it – whatever it is – will end. It’s more like I’m at a nice hotel – the kind you get for discount rates at academic conference, important not only because they are luxurious and perfectly located in great cities, but because you could never, ever afford to stay there if you weren’t paying convention rates. I can’t afford to stay there, but I tell myself that I’m not bad at acting like I can.

Whatever makes me feel “at home”, it certainly isn’t books. I try, because of course I want the approval that comes with being a good student, I try very hard. I try. I'm not talking Baudelaire, just, like Catcher in the Rye -- edgy-lite, not that I'm even at a point where I make that sort of judgment. I just start reading because I am supposed to and I am Nothing if not The Boy Who Does What He is Supposed to Do. I start all the books that are assigned in my English classes, but even when I like the book enough to keep turning the pages -- maybe, now that I think of it, especially when I like it enough to keep turning the pages -- I just get so anxious, more anxious the more I get into the book. I’m afraid of missing something outside the book, and it’s so lonely inside a book. By which I guess I mean that nobody in the book is telling me what a great guy/basketball player/soccer player/student/son I am. So before too long, the hunger mounts, the jones overwhelms me and I put the book down and go out to the driveway to shoot some hoops where the constant pounding of the ball on the pavement promises, and the consistent enough swish of the ball through the net delivers for me the message that I am great, that I am at home. That’s the closest I come to being at home in the way that I imagine that kid sitting alone with his fraying paperback copy of Notes from Underground seems to be.

Where I feel this horrible combination of trapped inside the hell that is my own self-loathing and cravenly oriented towards the external sources that alone can keep those demons at bay, this kid seems mysteriously self-sufficient, powered by some hidden fuel source, some internal drive. Like I say, I have no idea if they really were or not, or if it felt like that or not. But now I imagine that the power they were driven by was their own desire and that the home they quietly enjoyed was that of unself-consciously allowing themselves to feel and be led by that desire. I don’t mean a desire for anything in particular, that’s more the kind of thing I was governed by: a desire for approval, for an end to anxiety, self-doubt and self-criticism. No, theirs wasn’t that sort of desire. Rather it was just a desire to be, to continue to be, unfolding themselves steadily in time and space, neither greedily nor parsimoniously, but just naturally. As though they’d 1) dispassionately surveyed the field of possible activities: put make-up on, talk about the Next Game, talk about My Car, talk about That Boy, talk about The Play, Get Stoned Behind the School, read Thus Spoke Zarathustra; then 2) calmly studied the tilt of their inner terrain and identified their inclination and 3) aligned (2) with (1).

So I feel a little jealous of those friends who have had such stories to tell me. Not, as I used to believe (and as even sometimes provokes the story), because they got such a head start on me in reading The Books That Must Be Read (I didn’t read Nietzsche in high school, or college, or even graduate school). Okay maybe I am a little jealous of that too. Even when I know the person – like my dear Claire – very very well so that I would expect that this knowledge of the person’s actual life would get in the way, still even then my mind instantly casts them in this quiet imaginary drama in the lunchroom: casts them as the impossible me I wish that I had been instead of the impossible me that I was.

And that me has the home of books or, more precisely and critically importantly, that me has the home of his own desire. And that is where the jealousy arises: not of Claire or of anyone else who might share with me a probably somewhat painful recollection of reading Being and Nothingness at the age of 16. It’s not even jealousy I’m realizing now. It’s sadness, pain, mourning for that me that I hadn’t been, for the one I had already lost touch with that by the time I hit the soccer field and basketball court, by the time I secured the needed friendships. That me, the one that felt naturally and unselfconsciously at home in his skin, and in his skin in the world, that is what I project onto the not-lonely kid reading alone at the lunch table and so if I am jealous I am jealous that he or she managed to get to that age with the capacity to make themselves feel at home, from the inside, still intact.


On Reading Sports: Andre Agassi's Open and Other Literary Works

Thursday, June 10, 2010

What do they know of tennis -- or, for that matter, any other sport -- who only tennis know?In Beyond a Boundary, his autobiography, the late Trinidadan critic, playwrite, historian, novelist, teacher and activist C. L. R. James asked “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” James somehow manages to tell, simultaneously (and terrifically absorbingly), the story of his life, the story of cricket in the West Indies, and the story of West Indian decolonization. The Guardian justly rated the book one of the top sports books ever (# 3).

Andre Agassi’s Open is not at a level with Beyond a Boundary but it does share with James’s work – and with all excellent sports writing – a deep awareness that the game contains, not only itself and its own laws and practices, but in some mysterious fashion, all of life. The title itself announces this awareness by punning the name of a kind of tennis tournament (U.S. Open, for example, where Agassi begins his story) with the quality of being to which Agassi aspires, from which he often suffers, and which he certainly brings successfully to his writing. From the scoring vocabulary of the game to the dynamics of service, return, and volley, from the solitude of the player on his or her side of the court to the tension between what is ideal (perfectionism) and what is possible (fatigue, injury), Agassi maintains an awareness of the deep meanings immanent in the game he lived with for so many years. At the same time, he knows when to let up on that awareness and let the narration of a match just be the narration of a match. The opening chapter, in which he recounts his penultimate match, a five-set marathon at the 2006 U.S. Open against Marcos Baghdatis is some of the very best sports writing I have ever read.

A Serious Man
From that beginning, which is, of course, also the end of his career. Agassi returns us to another kind of beginning: his childhood in Las Vegas, son of an Iranian immigrant casino worker and ex-Olympic boxer and a mid-western American mother. Having tried and, in his eyes, failed to produce tennis prodigies out of his first three children, Agassi's father, Mike, trains his sights on young Andre. From the age of 7, Agassi is made to spend hours each day on the home-made tennis court in the family's backyard, swatting at balls hurled at over 100 miles per hour from "the Dragon," a terrifying contraption engineered by his father to simulate impossible angles (and no doubt responsible for Agassi's reputation as one of the finest service returns in tennis history). 2500 balls a day, at a net that his father had raised six inches higher than regulation. The balls were allowed to accumulate on the court to make the whole enterprise more perilous. There is great drama and tension, father son wars, and Agassi movingly conveys the point of view and feelings of a small child in the situation: loving his father, craving his love, but despising what he is made to do. His mother, though a more marginal figure, plays a role simultaneously comforting Andre with her calm passivity, and enraging him with her calmly passive refusal to stand-up for him.

Over the course of the rest of the book we learn about some of the already superficially familiar events of Agassi's life, which is to say his career (for a major part of the story is just how inseparable those were for him): his emergence as a prodigiously talented, but somewhat underachieving, professional at the age of 16, his colorful, if not ostentatiously rebellious, clothing and hairstyles, his marriage to and divorce from Brooke Shields, his rise to the top, fall, and rise again. Open skillfully weaves these known quantities into the fabric of a bildungsroman, or novel of formation, so that the behind the scenes views we get do not appear sensational or opportunistic but rather just, well, open. Seeking to understand himself through this narrative, Agassi seems to go pretty far in trying to face up to the reality of his life and choices, even the ones that weren't, until the publication of this book, public knowledge, such as his addiction to crystal meth or his wearing a hairpiece throughout the height of the "image is everything" phase of his career.

Ultimately, the story has a happy ending, for which I was glad because I identified strongly with Agassi throughout the work -- from his life-long struggle between obligation and desire to his love-hate relationship with his father, from his loveless first marriage to the spasmodic alternation between self-contorting conformity and self-distorting rebellion to the sharp paradox of perfectionist self-loathing: "the piece of shit the universe revolves around." But in the end, Agassi finds -- as I have -- the love of his life in Stefanie Graff (a/k/a women's tennis great Steffi Graf), a romance which the book nicely constructs as a kind of fairy-tale destiny, complete with portents. Moreover, Agassi, the high school dropout, devotes considerable resources of money, time, and energy to founding and running a school for at-risk kids in Las Vegas and, of course, writes this book. I should note that he doesn't write the book alone as his acknowledgements duly point out. He sought the help of Jay Moehringer, author of The Tender Bar, and the two of them collaborated in marathon sessions over the course of a couple of years in a process that sounds more like therapy than anything else.

I used to read a lot of sports biography and, especially, autobiography when I was younger. I remember in particular the utter fascination that a trio of such works – by Wilt Chamberlain (Wilt: Just Like Any Other 7-Foot Black Millionaire Who Lives Next Door, 1973), Kareem Abdul Jabbar (Giant Steps, 1987), and Bill Russell (Second Wind, 1979) – held for me. The three centers dominated the NBA and faced-off in titanic clashes for a decade and a half. First Russell’s Celtics vs. Chamberlain’s Warriors and later Lakers, then Jabbar’s Bucks against Chamberlains’ Lakers (I was lucky enough to see a Jabbar-Chamberlain battle when I was about seven). In my memory, I read all three of these books at around same time, when I was about eight, though the publication dates show that this would have been impossible. I almost certainly read Wilt's at that time. But I probably read Bill Russell's around the time I started high school, and Jabbar's around the time I finished college.

But I think I collapse those times because the books themselves so powerfully evoked for me the memory of the games themselves, in which all three giants coexisted more or less in the same place and time. I don't think I ever saw Bill Russell play live (he retired in 1969, when I was just four), but I saw enough of him and certainly studied and knew enough basketball history to feel as though I had witnessed his epic battles with Wilt. And I definitely saw Wilt vs. Jabbar, both on television and, on one lucky occasion, in person at the Dane County Coliseum in Madison, Wisconsin, where my father took me to see one of the three exhibition games that the Milwaukee Bucks would play there each season. The numbers alone were impressive to me from the height and size of the players to the team and individual statistics that chronicled their unsurpassed domination (Kieran Egan would have a field day with Romantic fascination with the mega ergon of hoops).

They Certainly Were Giants
But what the books evoked, in particular, was the part of those games and battles that was about more than those games and battles; more than Russell’s impeccable timing and defensive play against Chamberlain’s size, strength, and offensive skills. There were moralistic overtones that fed my youthful hunger for meaning in black and white, good and evil. Russell, self-sacrificing team player against Chamberlain, transcendent individual talent. In the ethos of the basketball world in which I grew up this made Russell the Good Guy and Chamberlain the Bad Guy. There were all kinds of subtleties and not-so-subtleties that I didn't pick up on at the time, the main one being the role that race and racism played in superimposing these dramas on a sporting event. And Jabbar, for that matter, would complicate matters, especially after his conversion to Islam – he was against Chamberlain so he must be a good guy, but he was surly with the press and angry about something so he was probably a bad guy: it was confusing.

But the important thing is not that I did or didn't fully understand what was at stake. It is that even at that young age I knew that much more was at stake than just who won a basketball game. I knew, even if I couldn't have articulated it in all its complexity, that Important things were at stake with every loose ball, every basket scored, every blocked shot, every outlet pass: things that had everything to do with life itself, with what it means, with the impossible to answer questions about how to live it, about what makes it good and bad.

Agassi's book provided me with an enjoyable stroll through some of the most exciting moments in tennis history, a stirring narrative of a boy becoming a man, trying to make a decent ordinary life out of extraordinary circumstances that he both does not and does choose, and with a surprisingly revealing mirror of my own life and many of the issues that continue to vex me. But he also illuminated for me a path -- like a set of stones set out across a stream -- that I'd forgotten about in my life, or relegated as a marginal, unimportant B-grade fact in my own life in literature: my love of sports writing and, particular, sports autobiography. From the gargantuan memoirs of Wilt Chamberlain to the sophisticated social commentary of C. L. R. James to the deeply affecting story of Andre Agassi, the passion of my reading life has come as much from these tales of sports, which are also tales of life in the world, as from anything else.

What do they know of reading who only reading know?


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