Nemo cast a blanket of white over the landscape last weekend. The nearly three foot thick layer of snow made roads impassable. Regularly scheduled activities (soccer training, soccer matches, work, school, etc.) were cancelled. Nemo’s gift was free time, extra time (stoppage time?). His price was a few hours of shoveling, but the benefit was a triple return on investment. I disappeared into my study to write. My work in progress: Angels and Monsters.
Watching football was my escape from the labor of writing. Stoke City v. Reading on Saturday morning. The US Women v. Scotland in the evening. The Africa Cup of Nations final on Sunday. Liverpool v. West Brom on Monday afternoon. Celtic v. Juventus on Tuesday. Then something happened. Wednesday. I had a football hangover. Champions League: Man United v. Real Madrid. The idea of watching that match made me sick. The MetroBulls played a preseason match against Real Salt Lake. I couldn’t even bring myself to watch that. All I wanted to do yesterday was read. And read I did, finishing Cosmos by Witold Gombrowicz.
A fresh layer of snow covered the steps and driveway this morning. I started the day with shoveling and the scattering of ice melt (salt of the earth). My son was hoping for another snow day, a day off from school to play, and to lounge lazily around the house. Today is a normal day. A short commute to the office. Meetings. Manuscripts to read. Decisions to be made. I hold authors’ futures in my hands. Do I feel that weight of responsibility? And when I return home, the hope that the book I ordered will be waiting for me on the steps. The Novel of the Future by Anaïs Nin. I’ve read it before. About ten years ago. It was one of the first books I read after moving to New York to become a writer.
The Africa Cup of Nations continues today in South Africa with runner-up match between between Ghana and Mali to decide who will take third place. The final tomorrow will be played between Nigeria and Burkina Faso. I’ve been following the tournament closely since it began two weeks ago. To supplement my viewing I’ve been reading a couple of books about soccer in Africa.
Africa United by Steve Bloomfield is a summary tour of the continent with ten chapters introducing thirteen of Africa’s national teams. Bloomfield’s book was published a few years ago, just before the 2010 World Cup finals hosted by South Africa. A few things have changed since the publication of the book, but it’s still current enough that it doesn’t feel dated.
Bloomfield writes more about the recent history of these African nations than he does about their soccer teams. Soccer is the entry point for Bloomfield’s treatment of the social, racial, economic, and political upheaval in these countries. And it turns out that soccer is an ideal unifying thread for Bloomfield’s narrative since soccer and each country’s national team is a central part of public and social life. Politicians and dictators associate themselves with successful soccer teams in order to bask in reflected glory. But when those same teams lose matches, those who value power above all else unjustly seek to punish and degrade failure.
The other book I’m reading is called More Than Just a Game. The subtitle explains, “Soccer vs. Apartheid”. The authors are Chuck Korr and Marvin Close. The narrative reads like it’s a pitch for a film and is full of tired narrative shorthand phrases. Even if the literary quality isn’t so high, I’m intrigued by the story and the level of organization that the political prisoners on Robben Island committed themselves to when they decided to play soccer during their free period on Saturday. The prison league structure had a constitution complete with governing boards, each club had its own written constitution and laws of operation. There was a referee union and courts of arbitration. The impression I get is that the jailed South African blacks were intent on demonstrating that they could govern just as well as the whites. Better perhaps since they would be adverse to mete out cruelty so casually as the white prison guards. Soccer, for the prisoners, became a training ground for self-governance and self-determination.
South Africa lost their quarterfinal match against Mali. Because South Africa is the host nation and my reading list, I was sympathetic to South Africa and hoped that they would progress to the final match. But it was difficult to begrudge Mali the win. Mali could use some happy news at the moment. A win over Ghana might give them a moment of joy and something to celebrate.
Over the weekend our U10 boys team played a futsal match. The extra outdoor practice on Saturday must have helped. The Strikers won 14-1. We were up 7-nil at the half and I told the boys they were playing well and that they didn’t need to be in such a rush to score. “Pass the ball a bit. See how long you can possess the ball. Get the center-half involved in the play.” They all nodded their head, smiling from ear to ear, ready to get back out on the court.
Before league play started, I didn’t know if I’d like competitive futsal. We ended up in a winter futsal league when the indoor soccer league (on a larger turf field) fell through for varying reasons depending on who you talk to. Most likely reasons rooted in money or lack thereof. Running a youth soccer club is all about paying out money, always asking the parents to chip in $20 here, $25 there, and all the time I’m wondering why we don’t have more play between the teams in our own club. And then there’s the adults. We’d like to kick the ball around too.
After the Strikers 14-1 victory over the Elite, we had an hour long practice in the gym. We played small sided games and I joined in to make up a 3v3. I’m rusty too. My legs felt heavy and stiff. All flabby from sitting around during the holidays.
Despite my fatigue I dressed up after practice and drove to Williamsburg. Spuyten Duyvil put six of my brewery‘s beers on tap and one on cask. Rasan was there. Lev and his friend Paul. I’d hoped Franz would show up, but he might have been too put out after the Arsenal, Man City match (which I wouldn’t see until the next day).
It was midnight just as I was getting home Sunday night. The drive home in the fog seemed timeless. I was listening to the Anfield Wrap (podcast) and the Liverpool supporters were admitting just how much respect they had for Sir Alex and his boys. I was in a trance. Whole stretches of road passed as if I were in a dream, my consciousness far away. At one point, I became aware that I was so caught up in what I was listening to that I had no recollection of the road over which I’d been driving for how many minutes? I’d read something about this effect, autopilot (?) in a book by Oliver Sacks. Was it Oliver Sacks?
There’s a new book out by Daniel Tammet called Thinking in Numbers. I haven’t read the book, don’t even own a copy, but I did hear a podcast interview with the mathematician / author recently. His discussion of the many possible arrangements of Nabokov’s Lolita captured my attention, but it was what he said about the predictability of the language of school girls that got me thinking. Tammet referenced a “famous study” where “scientists” came up with an algorithm to predict the speech patterns of English school girls. To a high degree of accuracy, he said, the scientists could predict precisely what an English school girl would say next based on exhaustive and accurate knowledge of what she had already said. He didn’t explain that this was a result of the language of English school girls being so repetitive and conventional. That school girls talk for the same reason that birds sing, because they lack a natural capacity for silence, or simply to be heard.
Tammet compared the predictable language of the English school girl with the greatest novelists and poets. A novelist, or a poet, uses language in a more sophisticated way. What a poet will write (or say) next is not predictable at all, he said. And it is precisely this unpredictability that makes good novelists so exciting and interesting to read.
Football players, great ones, are also unpredictable. What makes great soccer players and great teams so fun to watch is that they do the unexpected, and the unexpected often leads to glimpses of beauty, or moments of joy, or inspiration.
When I watch a football match, I look for patterns, the positions of players, open lanes for passing, and often I see a small channel open up and I say, “Pass it there! To him!” But then the ball flies in some other direction, reaching another player in a more congested part of the field, and he finds a crack in the defense, one that I hadn’t even seen was there. That moment of realization is a surprise, and a pleasure.
A team or a player that always does the same things over and over again, they are less interesting to watch. Even the highly skilled sides, who can pass the ball accurately, expertly, and with clockwork precision can be boring if the passing is too predictable and leads to little in the way of breakthrough moments.
Beyond just watching the game, I started reading books about soccer. Authors like Simon Kuper and David Winner showed me that football was a worthy subject — possibly even a subject that I could write about.
For years I’ve kept up with literary journals and the smart book reviews. Most of such publications are filled with political and social commentary. As much as I’ve tried, I’ve never developed a lasting interest in the political world, or the characters that inhabit it. The political players are a dull sort, and for the most part shallow, and incapable of independent or unpredictable action. When I ran across a reference to the Dutch “literary” football journal Hard Gras in Winner’s book, Brilliant Orange, I was intrigued and so started looking for English language equivalents. I found a host of intelligent writing about football and cultural criticism written from a soccer perspective. Now in the US we have journals like Howler and XI Quarterly. This is a wonderful time to be a literate football fan.
I’ve been working my way through A Football Report‘s list of the best football writing of 2012 and I’ve found a writer that I enjoy reading, Brian Phillips who writes for Grantland and his own site, Run of Play. And it was Phillips that I thought about when I was musing about good writing and unpredictability. I had just read Phillips’s piece in Grantland “Celebrity Entropy” and was amused by this line: “By the time I started getting into soccer, he seemed more like a discredited childhood memory, one of those stray communal wisps that once felt genuine but turned out to be propaganda, like hair metal or the first Thanksgiving.” When I started reading the sentence I didn’t see “hair metal or the first Thanksgiving” coming. In football terms, it was like Phillips had found an open passing lane, slipped the ball through, and scored just past a diving keeper. It wasn’t that the sentence was beautiful, it was that Phillips had introduced the unexpected, words that were unpredictable. The surprise of discovering the unexpected is at the root of both comedy and the joy of something approaching beauty.
I look forward to Thursday nights the way most people look forward to Friday night. Thursday evenings are protected. No matter what’s going on in the world, Thursday is my night to say, “No, I can’t do it. I’ve got other plans.” Thursday nights are reading nights. No streaming soccer matches on the widescreen display. Just a book, and me on the couch, or the bed, or in my reading chair. “I have a date with a book,” I could say. But perhaps some wouldn’t understand.
Even though I read every day – reading is essential for the writing life – I rarely get more than an hour (here or there) on most days. Except for Thursday when I can block off three or four hours to immerse myself into something. And I won’t give that up.
My current reading list has a fair number of soccer (aka football) books given that my present writing project is soccer-themed. I’m in the research phase at the moment. The research phase for a book is the best since it involves reading and note-taking mostly. The organizational, the structural phase is less fun. The actual writing part is the labor.
There’s a long-ish piece in the New Yorker this week by John McPhee on structure (in writing). It’s an interesting article to me, as a writer, because McPhee opens the door to the workshop. I’ve always been a fan of the “Writers at Work” series in the Paris Review. Although, I can’t imagine that anyone but a writer would be all that interested in how writers go about their work. It’s literary shoptalk. What I’ve learned in two decades of reading about how other writers write is that everyone has their own bag of tricks, everyone works in their own way, and there’s no standard method. What works for one writer, won’t necessarily work for another.
Working methods differ, but the basic process is the same: conception, organization, implementation, revision, (and finally) publication. How a writer goes about navigating that process is his business.
I still don’t know what sort of soccer book I’m going to write. When I first got interested in writing about soccer (the latter part of 2011) my first idea was to write a book about youth soccer, a vaguely fictional memoir about a dad coaching his son’s team. The first thing I did was a “literature search.”
When I was in graduate school, I had to come up with an original research problem. That original problem would be the subject of the dissertation I would need to write to complete my degree. The originality of the idea was key. I couldn’t just do something that had already been done, the idea had to be completely fresh, something new in the world, pertaining to a problem that had never been solved before. So each time I came up with an idea (the conception phase) I’d trudge off to the library (the Internet was still in its infancy back then) and do a literature search. The mechanics were slightly different than doing a Google search, but the idea is the same. The literature search had to be complete and exhaustive. The worst thing is to pick a project, spend a year or two working on it, and then discover that it’s already been done before.
It didn’t take me long to find Jim Haner’s book Soccerhead. The subtitle of the book gives you an idea of what the subject matter is: “An accidental journey into the heart of the American game.” But it’s the premise that gives the book its structure: a dad who gets drafted to coach his son’s soccer team learns about the game and it’s history and development. Haner covers the story of soccer in America, giving an entertaining history of the game embedded in the context of his trials and tribulations as a youth soccer coach. It’s a brilliantly done book. And there’s no reason why I should try to rewrite it. Okay, perhaps things are different in the US, ten years since Soccerhead‘s publication, but there are other soccer books I could write, so why redo that one?
I’d moved to Long Island for practical reasons having to do with my writing career. And after three years of working on a novel, a colleague of mine, another writer, encouraged me to take up blogging. This colleague had been experimenting with blogging about wine. He knew that I was an amateur brewer, so he kept bugging me about writing a craft beer blog. Somewhat reluctantly, I gave it a try. And the experience I gained over the subsequent five years helped shape my thinking about culture and society. I wasn’t satisfied to limit myself to writing just about craft beer, I wanted to write about American culture and what the craft beer movement represented in that context. The connections I made in those five years led to a partnership with two other brewers, and together we founded and launched a craft brewery of our own. Now that I’m a professional brewer and not just a beer writer, I have a different relationship to the local beer scene. So what I write about the world of craft beer is colored by this new perspective.
I thought about giving up writing about craft beer altogether. During that time I indulged myself in working on a number of fiction projects I’d started over the years and not quite finished because I was so wrapped up in chasing after craft beer. With the beer blogging out of the way I felt free to flirt with other subjects. And because my son was getting more involved with soccer and his team needed an assistant coach, my life started revolving more and more about the axis of the soccer pitch and less about the pub. The change was also good for my health. Running around after eight and nine year olds is good exercise, and after a few months I noticed my beer gut shrinking.
Writing about the craft beer movement allowed me to write about culture, economics, politics, psychology, and pretty much anything else that interested me. Craft beer was a lens. And through that lens I hoped to gain new insights about how American society is put together, what’s going well, and where we’re making mistakes. After a few months of talking with people in the soccer world and reading whatever I could find on the subject, I realized that soccer was also a lens. And the soccer lens could be trained on the same aspects of American society, culture, economics, etc. And, additionally, soccer and craft beer were connected by the umbilical of the pub and the stadium terrace where beer drinking and spectating meld into the same act (like chocolate and peanut butter).
Last year, shortly after my brewery got its final operational license in place, I was talking with Rasan about a book that I thought I was going to write, a book about my and my business partner’s experiences in getting a small brewery up and running. I’d just read a book by Gabriel Kuhn called Soccer versus the State and I’d realized that we’d been running our brewery as an anarchist collective (without realizing it) for nearly five years. Reading Kuhn’s book started my mental wheels turning. At the heart of the craft beer movement is a (sublimated?) commitment to anarchism, and certainly an overt commitment to doing things for yourself rather than confining one’s role in society to that of passive consumer. But I also started thinking about our local soccer club, and the pay-for-play model that we all agreed to uncritically. What Kuhn had written about freeing the game from capitalist shackles seemed right to me. Soccer is a game. People get together and kick a ball for fun. I’d already run into the politics of the use of public space and how that is controlled, and regulated with fee structures that are designed to keep out “undesirable elements” (poor people and recent immigrants). The fees we had to pay to get our brewing license were not huge, but I wondered why the State had what amounted to a pay-for-play policy when it came to starting a new business. It was like they were saying, unless you are part of the monied elite, don’t bother us, stay chained to your soul-killing, alienating nine-to-five slave-work like a good boy. Imagine it. What if anyone who wanted to could make their own beer and sell or trade it to whomever they wanted without interference from the State – it would be anarchy. And that’s good thing. Gabriel Kuhn, with his little book about soccer, had completely changed the way I thought about anarchy. I’d been operating under a misconception about anarchism all my life. After reading Kuhn’s book, I realized that I had been a closeted anarchist. Kuhn gave me the courage to come out of that closet and declare my natural born and instinctive anarchist tendencies. And if a book about soccer can do that, then I thought (as a writer) the subject was worth studying.
The chat last night with Alice helped. After that, for added inspiration I picked up Gombrowicz and read his Diary imagining that it was a blueprint for this Diary, but where Gombrowicz writes about Polish literature and literary culture in general, I’d be writing about American soccer and world football culture. Alice also said that I should keep writing about craft beer, especially since I actually did (in some hypothetical way) monetize my beer writing effort by establishing a solid consumer base of craft beer bars and their frequenters so that when we launched our brewery there’d be places to sell the beer to. “You should write about the brewery,” says Alice. “People would be interested in that.” I think she’s right. Very wise, Alice.
And I think about the Free Beer Movement, American soccer and craft beer working together to make our nation a better place. There’s an audience for good writing about real football and real beer. Beer and soccer go together. Where do soccer supporters meet? At the soccer pub. So the first step in establishing a soccer supporter culture out here on Long Island is to team up with a soccer friendly bar owner.
“You’re always coming up with these crazy ideas,” says Franz when I explain my masterplan to him. We’re at Callahan’s having a pint. “When are you actually going to do something?”
“But I am doing something. I’m writing.” That’s my response.
“Oh that’s right,” he says. “You’ve started blogging again.”
“I don’t know that I’d call it blogging anymore,” I say.
“What would you call it then? If it quacks like a duck…”
“It’s just writing that is put somewhere where people can find it,” I say.
“How are people supposed to find it?” He fires back raising a signifying eyebrow.
That’s where my long-term masterplan comes in. Like all megalomaniacs I do have a masterplan. And it’s easier to write about the plan than to actually follow through on it.
“Football please,” says Franz.
“Alright. Football is a larger canvas. It’s bigger than craft beer. It contains craft beer. Through the combined prism of soccer and craft beer I can explore (through the agency of the written word) topics of vital interest.”
“You mixed your metaphor there,” says Franz reaching for his pint of London Pride.
What I’m thinking about is what David Larkin, ChangeFIFA Co-Director and General Counsel, said on Beyond the Pitch recently. Anto kept pressing Larkin about what the average soccer fan could do to help ChangeFIFA improve the working conditions of most of the world’s professional footballers. (Check out FIFPro’s “Black Book” specifically pages 9 through 18 if you want to read ahead and be prepared for future posts.) Larkin’s recommendation for how to get involved is to stop drinking Coca-Cola and eating at MacDonald’s, evidently the two corporations are huge football sponsors and institutionally indifferent to the problems facing lower league players around the world. What a disappointment, I thought. That’s all I can do to help advance the cause of the working class footballer? Stop drinking an alcohol-free carbonated beverage and industrially branded fast-food? I already don’t drink Coke and grabbing anything at MacDonald’s is simply not an option in the same way that I’d never set foot in a Wal-Mart or a Whole Foods. These are already lifestyle choices that I’ve made based on a commitment to localism and resistance to the creeping corporate monoculture. Like Anto, I wanted Larkin to give me a substantive mission. “Take up the pen and write about the injustices of the world!” Wouldn’t that have been an inspirational injunction?
“Not everybody writes a blog,” Alice said during our chat and I explained my frustration with the consumer boycott tactic.
“Some people don’t have a choice.” (Which I realize is a ridiculous response, but writing is what I do. When I’m not watching soccer or brewing beer, that is.)
On Sunday, I had an unexpected windfall. A few months ago, we’d made a particularly excellent batch of Fresh Hop Pils and delivered it to a craft beer place on the South Shore. This Fresh Hop Pils is really and truly tasty. A consequence of this is that it sold really well. And given that we had so little of it, we had no kegs left for ourselves. No Pils for the brewers! Well, the windfall is this: Some beer geeks (beer dicks?) went into this place on the South Shore and did some scratching and sniffing and convinced the bar owner that something was off in the beer. Reportedly these beer geeks (definitely dicks) found something amiss with the beer. What could I do? I gladly drove down on my Sunday “off” and replaced the “bad” keg of Fresh Hop Pils with something different – free of charge, of course. So in my possession, I have one unsellable keg of Fresh Hop Pils because it took these dicks a couple of gallons to arrive at their negative sensory evaluation. And a partial keg can’t be resold. Thus, tonight, I’m relaxing with a delicious glass of Fresh Hop Pils. Not a single flaw in the beer at all. Their loss. I feel sorry for the poor bar owner who is incapable of making his own judgements about the beer he sells.
After finishing up my work today, I had a long chat with Alice about what I should do this year. Not that I expected Alice to tell me, but I find it helpful to have a good chat and see if any of my crazy ideas make sense to anyone other than myself. What was rattling around in my head was the words “return on investment.” I’d read Christopher Dobens’ farewell post on his Total Footblog today. He’s throwing in the towel. He says writing about soccer hasn’t given him a good ROI. Basically, he’s not been able to monetize his labor and as a result has become alienated from his product. I know what he’s talking about. I’ve been in those shoes and they aren’t comfortable.
A few years ago, I started writing (blogging) about craft beer. I wasn’t all that interested in monetizing my efforts to maximize my ROI, as a result I spent a lot of time running around, drinking some excellent beer, visiting some really great breweries, brewpubs, and taprooms, and all I have to show for it is a protruding midsection. And some good memories too. Memories I’ve recorded in four “beer novels.” I asked Alice if I should just publish the other three and get it over with. First I published my Long Island Beer Guide and that sold about 150 copies. Good, I thought. I’ve got an audience. So I followed that up with my first beer novel, A Year in Beer, which flopped: 4 copies sold. I had to give the rest away to friends who were polite enough to not to refuse my offer. “You didn’t promote it,” said Alice. How could I promote it? I thought. I don’t have a self-promoting bone in my body.
“At least you could put a sample up on your web site,” she said.
Good idea, I thought. But how will people find it? (If you build it, they will… no probably not.) Despite my natural pessimism about ever finding readers in quantities which can be numbered on the fingers of more than one hand, I figured revamping the web site was long overdue in any case. So I got fair start tonight. Instead of reading, which is what I normally do on a Thursday night (when there isn’t an MLS match). Well, I’ll still read. With my glass of Fresh Hop Pils freshly topped up, I’ll reach for a good book. Probably a book about real football, the sort of football that isn’t played with the hands.