This story is a year in the making. Around this time last summer, I began pitching this article about former NFLers who are making a splash in the wine game. I wanted to know if their wines were legitimate businesses, or were wine labels something upon which retired players could splash their names in order to make a quick buck.
Wine is a spirit of endless fascination to me, and the more I learned about it, the more I want to know. From the chemistry of soil to the regions climate, this is all interesting to me. I can tell you probably more than you need to know about the beer brewing process, but how the grapes interact with the yeast and how that varies year to year or the tannins and micro-oxidations in the barrels is more interesting to me right now.
It’s probably the science behind the barrels that interests me most, which is why I’m so interested in what Oxbow does at their Bottling & Blending facility up in Portland, Maine. I also published a piece this week about Oxbow’s Saison Dell’Aragosta, which — I’ll submit — doesn’t use barrels, but it still falls into the category of pretty freakin’ cool.
*Feature photo: Courtesy of Getty Images.
In what would probably be my sophomore year of high school, my friend Shaun wrote an article for the school newspaper about the absence of the Bud Bowl from the commercial lineup during that year’s Super Bowl. In the way that high schoolers eagerly pronounce their casual, yet knowledgable relationship with alcohol, I found this article hilarious. How cool was I that I recognized those cans on the television from that one party where there was beer that one time!
He wrote in an over-the-top, Microsoft Word thesaurus, “I was miffed and bamboozled” style, quoting mutual friends in quotes that were almost definitely fabricated or simply made up. Our school newspaper was not known for any sort of editorial genius: It came out twice a year at best, each issue severely dated and centered around the silly things we care about in high school: a singular sports team, prom tickets, Mrs. Smith’s can drive to help “needy families” at the holidays.
In short, I was on board.
I always enjoyed writing papers for class. I got to write funny articles, quote my friends, and have my name in print? I signed up immediately.
And I enjoyed these things. I found a way to write articles about my friends in an “athlete of the month” forum. I invented quotes. I used inside jokes that only my friends and I would understand. It was terrible journalism, but the narcissist that lies within me loved seeing my byline, loved hearing the compliment that someone liked my article. At this time, my dream was to host Monday Night Football. But I didn’t love being in front of the camera. Journalism was the answer.
Around this time, my friend made me a press pass on his computer. It was a press pass for a local sports site. I wasn’t part of their website, yet, for whatever reason, this press pass got me into most local games for free. I saved a whole $3 or something to get into a game in which I was openly cheering for one team. When I was a senior in high school, my cousin and I went to visit my grandparents in Fort Myers, Florida. During this trip, we went to the Red Sox Spring Training facility. I came armed with my press pass. Why not be part of the press corp? I literally had no idea what I was doing.
I jumped the rope into the press area and just kind of lingered around. I see the foolishness in this as I got older. I was 17. I must have stood out like a circus clown.
“Who are you with?” I was asked.
I told the nice gentleman with the cell phone firmly attached to his belt buckle who I was with.
He explained to me why I have to leave. He was nice about it. His name was Kevin.
When I was looking into colleges, I knew that journalism was what I wanted to study and it came down to two schools: Wingate University outside of Charlotte and Springfield College in western Massachusetts. Not exactly journalism powerhouses. That said, two good programs. When I went down to visit Wingate, I was disappointed by the focus on journalism and the emphasis on television; Despite the image of pretty southern blondes working on their non-regional dialects in all my classes, I left feeling that this wasn’t the place for me. In contrast, I went to Springfield where the focus was all on journalism. And, what’s more, all on sports. The professor with whom I spoke that day had written a book about one of my favorite teams of all time, the 1995-96 Massachusetts Minutemen. I was in.
During college, I oscillated between working hard and hardly working. Marty Dobrow was witness to all of this. There were times when I really took my journalism seriously; There were times when I mailed in an article in favor of beers in the back of our townhouse with my friends. And my professor Marty likely knew all this, and has told me that in college I seemed to be more interested in calling myself a writer than actually writing. I’m glad that opinion has changed.
I don’t regret all of this, but my network of journalism colleagues from college is remarkably small. The two with whom I keep the most contact are both working in major markets with high profile teams, but neither is writing.
I covered some cool shit when I was in school. I covered the Basketball Hall of Fame Induction. In 2003, I went to Fenway Park to cover a Red Sox game. As I waited in the empty ballpark for my companion to arrive and bring me to the press area, I was approached by a man with a cell phone firmly at his hip.
“Who are you,” he asked.
I brandished my press pass, legit this time. He was satisfied this time with my answer. His name was Kevin.
I told him the story of Fort Myers from years ago.
“That’s not the story I’d tell me at this point in your career,” he advised.
I laughed because I didn’t know whether he was joking.
I had a great internship alongside some really fine writers. Mike Moran and Matt Vautour showed me the ropes of covering local games well. There was a passion for the local high school teams that warranted close coverage. I enjoyed going to those games and I enjoyed going back to the sports desk to write them. The internship was paid, too, which was a bonus. After leaving work on Friday nights around midnight, I could also be back in time to meet the guys for a few beers or be a last minute addition to wherever the party was. That was important to me then.
Still, when tasked with a big article — a profile on the college president comes to mind; covering an Elite Eight women’s basketball team, too — journalism was something that I took seriously. That’s a piece I remember re-working a couple of times at least. It’s also a piece I remember because it was the one piece that really helped me discover an interview technique. Prior to that, I’d come in armed with questions and simply run down the list. Armed with a tape recorder, I remember coming with notes, but hoping to simply just engage our President in conversation and transcribe afterward. That strategy changed the way I interview to this day.
I left college with an inflated sense of accomplishment, at least journalistically. We all have things about our past that we’d change and it’s likely I’d involve myself a little more in that arena given the shot to do it all over again. Then again, being in college was a lot of fun. I can’t promise I wouldn’t opt for that game of beer pong. I like to believe these mistakes or miscues provide not a hiccup but simply a different path.
Post-college, I moved out to San Diego and immediately found work as a journalist at a weekly paper where I was tabbed as their sports editor. This was a difficult position to be in as a 22-year old. I had no management skills. I had little idea how to operate a sports department but I had an intern. I spent a good amount of time driving to high schools all around San Diego County. I went to a number of football games and wrote a few articles a week.
It didn’t work out. Through no fault of my own, I found out. They simply had no money to pay me. It was 2005. Print journalism was bleeding out in some global ICU.
From there, I did some freelance stories for literally $50 a pop for another local paper. Community events, youth sports announcements, etc. I literally brought a date to a fundraiser I was covering and we got drunk and ate sushi. All paid for by a local paper. Ah, to be stupid and 22 again.
When San Diego had run it’s course, I interviewed back in Massachusetts at a local paper. I thought the interview went great and drove back east. The job went to an internal hire. I found a job as a substitute teacher while I continued to write for a monthly sports paper, mostly profiles and features. Then the school wanted to hire me full time, so I left the journalism gig.
Over the course of the teaching career, I had a few journalism bugs bite. I wrote some op-eds for the same local paper that didn’t hire me; I wrote a few things about the craft beer scene for an alt-weekly out of Boston. The journalism bug never really left. It persisted. When teaching really came to a close, I chose to get back into the field that I’d chosen so long ago.
And this was dumb, I realize in retrospect and I’ve been wildly lucky to be where I am now which is still, essentially, nowhere. I had this idea that I’d reach out to journalism contacts that I still had and they’d be thrilled to help me. They’d be overwhelmed with my Michael Jordan-esque return to the game and throw jobs my way.
The best reality check I got was from a friend named Brian Shactman who’d been an adjunct at Springfield when I was there. We got on the phone and he said, “Okay, pitch me five ideas.” I didn’t have one idea when I called him, never mind five. In a very direct way, he told me I need to be better prepared. It was the best phone call I had.
So there I was. Few contacts. No ideas. Sitting in front of a blank computer screen.
It started with a personal essay reflection on the time I covered the Atlanta Braves at Spring Training, another great opportunity I got as an undergraduate. I reflected on baseball and youth; I wrote about despair of winter and the optimism baseball brings. I showed a friend named Alan Siegel.
He referred me to The Classical, a place for sportswriting that’s kind of outside the box. It was unpaid, but the editor, Dave Roth, was a great guy and would treat me kindly. The piece was accepted. And, as I drove to New York City early one morning, I got buzzed with text messages from friends saying the piece was great. It made me hopeful, seeing my name in a byline again.
I did more things with The Classical, all unpaid, all about sports. Alongside this, I reached out to an editor at a local magazine about doing some beer writing. They accepted this idea. If they were going to do some features on wine (they were making an attempt at high brow journalism), why not the growing craft beer industry? This moved into some local news writing.
One of the stories I did for The Classical prompted an e-mail from an Eric Nusbaum, who asked to include the story in a collection of baseball writing. Of course, I wrote. In his e-mail, his signature included that he was an editor at Vice Sports, to whom I had just written a pitch to their generic “sports@vice” or whatever e-mail. I mentioned this, and forward the pitch his way. Again, they accepted. And paid! Not much, but anything was great.
From there, it kept moving forward. I’ve written for Smithsonian, Vice Sports, The Atlantic, Sports Illustrated’s The Cauldron as well as many others. Freelance writing is a constant hustle. The waters keep rolling. You have to write every day. You have to pitch every day. This is hard. In the past three years, we’ve had two children. Children need attention. They need food. They need time. They’re expensive. It’s hard to balance these things with writing. There has been stress and struggle. There have been tears and anxiety. There have been impulsive e-mails to people like Marty or Alan or my wife about quitting. And maybe that still might happen. A steady paycheck sounds great. I can’t imagine how rich we’d feel.
When I think about my family during these few years, I can’t help but recognize and appreciate the sacrifices we’ve made for this … whatever it is. Pipe dream? Fantasy? Impossible, silly thing? Or maybe it’s what makes our lives interesting. For so many people, life happens to them, rather than the other way around. We always talk about making our lives more “fulfilled” and following our passions, but how many actually do it. And how many people have the support of their wives the way that I do to pursue these dreams? I don’t know where I’m going to end up. Hell, I don’t even know if I know where I want to end up. The destination isn’t the fun part, though, right? The journey is.
Last year, I got into a pretty good habit of writing every day on here. Even if I missed a day, it was because of an assignment that I had to fit in during my lunch time hour(s). It was a good schedule for me. I forced myself to be productive.
But the end of the year came. With the end of the year comes the closing up of shop. Invoices to re-send, making sure checks were for the right amount, did everyone pay me, etc.? Add to that the grind of the holidays where every free minute is making sure stocking are being stuffed and Amazon products are on their way.
Simply put, it was a gargantuan task to keep any writing going (I did manage some beer writing gigs which kept me same) during that insanely busy spell from Thanksgiving through New Years. Moreover, I gave myself the week after Christmas and before New Years Eve off. I rarely take time off. In the freelance world, a week where you’re not writing, pitching, planning, thinking can be killer. Alas, I decided for my own sanity I needed a break. I hadn’t taken that long of a stretch off since June.
It felt good.
But coming back to the daily grind was harder than I thought. Yesterday, recovering from a 24-hour stomach bug, I spent my free time not writing but on the couch. This morning, two kids in tow, I felt constricted by the lack of time and the neediness of my children. It’s hard. I began to think and it hit me:
Being a writer forces you to be like an elite NFL quarterback. You must have a really short memory. If you throw an interception, forget it and keep throwing; As a writer, if you get rejected or you get off schedule or you’re lacking ideas, forget it and keep going.
I wrote my wife an e-mail this morning about a lack of time and money and energy and this isn’t working. It was melodramatic, as I can be sometimes, and impulsive. I wasn’t wrong. Writing is hard by itself. It’s made more difficult by two kids at home. It’s made more difficult by the lack of time with the kids around and a second job at nights. But I’ve got to teach myself to take my own advice: Keep writing, keep moving forward.
I came across one of those links on Reddit that was something like “100 Books Every Man Should Read” lists. I’m a sucker for those even if, amongst those 100, the books are pretty much a list of classics that have been listed for decades (they’ll throw a few contemporary Pulitzer winners to make it more current).
I spent eight years as an English teacher attempting to expose teenagers to great literature. I have many thoughts on what English curricula across the country are doing wrong, but I won’t talk about that here. A great book is a book that changes your outlook on the world and that’s at the very least. A great book can inspire and influence.
We spend so much time in classroom making books as little fun as possible: Instead just reading the story, we make our students stop and ask, “So what does the clock mean?” Instead of asking them to simply get to the end of the chapter for homework, we want them to underline six words they don’t understand and share them in block one. English classes are bullshit. I didn’t like reading until college, during which or afterward I read the most important books in my life.
They all inform some part of my thinking or actions or practice as a writer in some way, though they’re not the only influences for those things.
1.) Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer: I was first introduced to this book in college, but fell in love with it on an airplane from Boston to San Diego. Since, I’ve read it probably a couple dozen times. I would incorporate it into every class I taught. First, Krakauer’s reporting is remarkable. Second, I think Chris McCandless’s journey is a journey that, as a society, we’re unable to recreate. There are no more blank spots on a map. As a parent, I think we should try to encourage our children to be passionate and brave and search for meaning. McCandless did that. He died. But he died because of enormous bad luck (and his adventure wasn’t a failure). Sometimes the difference between being a great parent and an awful one (or being a great story or a tragic one) is luck.
2.) Slouching Toward Bethlehem by Joan Didion: Taught me to love reading, simple as that. Second sentence of the first essay grabbed me and hasn’t let me go since. “Soft westerlies off the coast … An alien place, haunted by the Mojave … works on the nerves.” I ate up everything Didion has done since.
3.) Consider the Lobster by D.F. Wallace: The way Wallace could do his ethical and linguistic gymnastics still astounds me, and, in this work, it’s better than any of his fiction in my opinion. Someone hit it right on the head when they described his writing as something like being the smartest uncle at the holiday table who’ll end his incredibly intellectual argument with a dick joke.
4.) Sex, Drugs, Cocoa Puffs by Chuck Klosterman: In a lot of ways, it’s probably my least favorite of his work, but being the introduction to it makes this book hold a special spot. He wrote about Saved by the Bell and Radiohead and asked bizarre hypothetical questions. I felt a kindredness with Klosterman when I read him because we had (it seemed) similar interests and ways of trying to understand a subject differently from the normal narratives.
5.) Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon: I tend to suffer from bouts of many things: anxiety, frustration, moodiness, and introspection among them. I also read this one on a cross-country flight, from Phoenix back to NH, after hurriedly grabbing the first thing that seemed interesting off the bookshelf at the airport. At the time, I was grappling with some things as a son and a writer and as a person. It was just what I needed. Too often, men are pigeon-holed in a certain way in literature. Reading Chabon’s frustrations and anxieties and failures and triumphs was refreshing to me. After Into the Wild, it’s likely I’ve picked this book up more than any other book since.
You should read all of these. Yes, you.
Where are the young novelists?
Maybe we don’t need young novelists. Young novelists don’t know anything. Someone in their 20’s might write really well, but there’s an utter lack of experience through which to tell a story. I’m a firm believer that you don’t become a writer writer until you’re 30. You can’t know anything in life until you’ve gone through some serious shit. Let’s face it: Most writers are college educated, which is one of the great paradoxes of our time. Spend a blue whales amount of money to be alone, writing, for a krill’s salary. Then you spend almost as much money on therapy as you did college.
Most writers are educated, meaning they spent the first twenty or so years in some way living off their parents money. They came home from college break to their childhood bedrooms, borrowed $50 if they needed it, came home drunk and slept the day away. But then something happens: Life.
Student loans appear. Rent is due. You lose some friends. You gain new ones. You meet someone. You fall in love. You get your heart broken. You get a job. You have money. You spend it foolishly. All of these things you’ll look back on and realize how insignificant they were.
But that’s not true. As a writer, all of these things that accumulate, the good and the bad, the scary and the safe, they add up. They give us a world-view. They provide us with empathy and strength and courage to write. Sure, you get over these self-proclaimed tragedies.
The girl you loved that broke your heart? Someone new will come along, but the former girlfriend never goes away. She informed you how to grieve, how to recover, how to cope. She taught you how to want and regret and to be lonely. She taught you how to overcome.
The job you lost provided a sense of self-worth and enabled self-reflection. Fuck em. But you’ll get another job and, instead of fucking up in the dozens of ways you fucked up — even if your job and boss sucked — you crush it.
The friends lost and friends gained teach us to let go and embrace change; We watch as some people fade away or get sick or hurt or addicted and we learn empathy and compassion.
This shit doesn’t happen to us when we’re coddled in our childhood bedroom, eating dinner cooked by mom and purchased by someone who asks you for “requests” at the market each Saturday morning. Lessons are learned through adversity and adversity starts for most of us in our 20’s.
We’re facing a Presidential administration that could shape our country for years to come in a way that adversely affects too much people and, incredibly, the health of our planet. Get writing everyone.
Ah, Friday. I work Friday nights, but am home all day with the kids until my wife relieves me and I head out. Plus, I’m only there until 9 p.m., which means I get to watch most of the Celtics beating the Warriors tonight.
I’ll keep this short: Today, home with the kids, I went to one of those indoor play places. You know, slides and bouncy castles and sandboxes. Our daughter loves it. There’s a small little room, I guess you’d call it, for Jack. It’s basically a padded cage so he doesn’t get CTE before he’s six.
While there, I got into a conversation with an older, black woman. She called herself “enamored” with Jack, who is smiling constantly and strong as hell. I jokingly said we’ve been giving him steroids all his life. We continued to talk about life and the world as my children played a few feet away.
She’d traveled from Montgomery, Alabama to California to Germany to New England while he husband was in the military. They settled in New England a couple decades ago. We talked about journalism and the world and shared our collective sigh that we need to “get through these four years.”
She looked less daunted than I did, and it dawned on me that this woman has seen more treacherous roads than I. She talked about growing up in Montgomery and how her grandfather never came home from his shift as a night security guard in Birmingham. They never found out who did it; She talked about a cousin, a business owner, who was murdered because “black people weren’t supposed to own anything.” It made my petty whining seem a bit silly.
As I think about talking with Inez today, I hope my children looked up from their toys and imagination and saw their dad, engaged in a conversation that was both meaningful and deep-reaching with someone who looked very different than he. They will not have recognized a shifting perspective, it will just be their perspective. That’s why I have hope going forward.
On that note, read about Shaka Smart. You’ve had enough politics and civil rights thinking in the last two weeks.
And drink a beer. How about a Sixpoint 5Beans? It’s a Turkish-Inspired porter with cardamom and cacao and coffee. 10% too. Hefty boy but good.
Also, I like Pittsburgh -9 this weekend. They’re not losing three in a row.
Lately, I will admit, writing has been hard for me. I’ve kept up with writing every single day, which seems more like a diary day to day. Writing just to write. That isn’t a bad thing, in my opinion. Just because you didn’t have your best mile split or heaviest dead lift or best quiz score doesn’t mean you quit running or the gym or school. You’re still exercising those muscles.
In reality, too, I’ve sold a couple beer articles in the last two weeks and those have been written and are in the process of editing, so nothing is completely lost. But those articles were mindless. They don’t pay that much and I didn’t work too hard to write them.
My favorite part of writing is the research. I love sitting down at the computer for a few hours trying to figure out what comes next and, upon finding it, feeling that certain level of excitement as I click around the internet for resources and additional material. I love the next few days as I send e-mail requests for interviews. These elements of journalism and both unrecognized and necessitate time. I have none of the latter.
Sure, I get an hour or two at nap time, but it comes with the caveat that I have something to do. When nap time comes (never a set time), I try my best to get in front of the computer and do work. But what about when there’s nothing to do? There’s the search for inspiration, for ideas. There’s that. A week goes by. Nothing. Two weeks. Nothing. There’s shit to write about, for sure.
Between two hours a day, tops, at nap time then a part time job that brings me home after 9pm, when does a person write? My wife leaves at 7am. Kids are up by 6am. Could I write from 9:30-midnight? Sure. Show me a parent with enough energy after watching two kids all day then working to come home to more work after work. Then wake up and do it again.I love my kids. I love my family. It’s a strain having them during the day, trying to write, then having my wife come home essentially to a tagging out high five as I walk out the door and she handles the rest.
And we’re still broke. Still struggling to make all ends meet. There’s not much left to cut out of the budget.
I try to take solace in the fact that I’ve had a bit of success — actually, I’ll say I’ve done damn well coming into the journalism game with limited contacts — all while being a stay-at-home dad with two kids. The solace comes when I think about what can be accomplished when they’re out of the house for the day. All of it: writing freedom, more money seem so far away.
For now, though, it’s still a struggle. I see articles that could have had my byline beneath them. I see stories that could have been my beat. It’s the end of the year, a good one professionally, a great one personally, and a terrible one for current events. All of the words have been written. I have no energy to spare right now.
Thanks for reading.