Held fast to the stern

The wet walk up Thorn takes 25 minutes, twice that if you’re doing it right. It curves wide around the cypresses, tall pathetic sentinels that invoke no wonder. Past the trees, it descends, then levels out into the water.

The path fades where hundreds of tiny feet have beaten it out into a wide delta that slopes down to the dirty water. Blades of grass improbably cling to life on the fringe, defiantly poking through the mud. An empty square bottle rests against the sedan-sized boulder at the shore.

I bent down to pick up the bottle, and my imagination rewound a night of teen rebellion. I considered carrying it back to The City, but instead set it back where it was. My laziness anointed it a tribute.

Why was I in such a hurry to leave? It was a question that had more than one answer — the right one, and the ones that I had constructed to avoid that first one. Neon lights are banned on Nantucket. That kind of pretension keeps a person artificially closed off from life’s relentless scratching at the soul.

I wondered why I had worn these sneakers knowing that the walk would be a sodden punishment. They sank deep into the silt, and it made me feel good.

At least I was playing music again. Then, again, the pang of honesty: What I was doing wasn’t playing music. It was reciting notes. It was filling in the blanks in a meaningless, emotionless, artless form that would move everything along, push the wheels, sustain the pace. Some people couldn’t tell the difference. Their unvarnished wonder was built on a misunderstanding. That wasn’t their fault, but it didn’t cheer me up.

I turned back toward where I knew the path would pick back up. My shoes squelched in protest as I sucked them from their comfortable bed.

The beauty of self-redefinition is its constance. Nobody says goodbye to themselves, but nobody has to keep running into the part of them that leaves them hollow and horrible and eager. A very old friend told me the man who laughs is the man who knows, but I don’t think he knew what that even meant. Happiness is trigonometry; it’s a delicate and sometimes unattainable balance of chemicals whose variables constantly warp and melt and overflow. Plug in those most common denominators — sunshine and sex and whiskey and money and achievement — and it will still let you down without a little equilibrium.

Shoes ruined, heart full, cold settling in to my chest, I left Thorn behind me again.  If I hurried, I could be home in an hour, but I was too busy to hurry.

305. Football

I’ve said it so many times, in job interviews, on dates, with new friends, that I have to remind myself to give it conviction, so it doesn’t sound like I’m reading from a script.  

“Montana doesn’t have a pro sports team. In fact, none of its surrounding states do either. Idaho, Wyoming, the Dakotas — none of the big four sports have a franchise in any of them. It’s truly the pro sports black hole of America.

“So growing up, I didn’t have a personal connection to sports. Green Bay, Wisconsin, might as well have been Narnia, for all that it mattered to me. I wasn’t going to visit either one of them.”

Over and over again. But listen — just because I’ve said it a lot, doesn’t make it untrue. I mean that. Those are the reasons I got into sports, and the only reason I pivoted to journalism is that I wasn’t good enough to get there playing football.

It was all I wanted as a kid — to play football and play it well. When I was 10, I was certain I was going to play quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys. I spent hours, nights, weekends in my basement, barking out play calls, dropping back in a pocket made of loveseats, standing tall amid imaginary blitzes, and slinging the ball downfield into my security-blanket tight end that, more often than not, was an actual blanket.

I lasted two years in organized football. They put me at cornerback in Pop Warner, backup cornerback, where my job was simple: Call out and stop sweep runs that came to my side.a

I was remarkably bad at this job.

I was too scrawny. I didn’t have the requisite football knowledge other kids had, especially the kids who grew up with older brothers and jock fathers.

But the biggest reason I failed is that I had an inherent, unshakable fear of getting hit and getting hurt. The instincts of aggression and excitement felt foreign to me on a football field. I wasn’t a punisher; even at eleven years old, I realized that.

It’s tough for me to picture what I must have looked like to my family — the undersized kid who half-hearted ran into the fray, eyes closed, hoping he could fashion his body into an awkward obstacle to slow down typically the other team’s most athletic player.

Hard to watch.

I was never the worst player on the team. I was reasonably fast, and I worked just hard enough to keep the coaches off my ass. But I was quiet and unsure of myself, and I know you could see the fear in my eyes.

One day at practice, halfway through my second miserable year, I took the kindest offensive coach aside, and I told him that I thought I had figured out what was wrong. I needed to be on offense, I said. If my natural instinct is to run away from contact, wouldn’t that make me a perfect running back? I reasoned.

He must have seen the desperation in my eyes because he let me warm up with the running backs that day. Of course, at the time, I thought that I had convinced him of my glittering, unfulfilled destiny as A Running Back.

My fellow cornerbacks whispered and pointed with envy as I jogged into the running backs line. I had been plucked from obscurity — Me! The second-string right cornerback! — and put on center stage with the golden boys, the ones who got the ball every play, who scored the touchdowns.

I’ll never forget that first drill. It was so simple: Take the handoff, run around a few cones and absorb a hit from a coach holding a blocking pad.

Eager to prove I knew what I was doing, I tucked the ball high and tight into my armpit, cradling it just like Emmitt Smith did. I raced forward, juked the cones, and steeled myself for the pad with my eyes closed.

And then I was on my back looking up at a grey sky, the ball rolling to a lazy stop yards away behind me. Brandon, the best running back on the team, held his hand out to help me up.

“It’s like that every single time,” he said, slapping my helmet. “Except when you score a touchdown.”

I don’t remember the rest of that day, but I do know that at practice the next day, I was back with the cornerbacks. My brief 15 minutes as a Chosen One were over. It was back to pretending I wasn’t afraid to do my job. I had flown too close to the sun.

I finished the season, but getting laid out on my first practice carry was the moment I knew I was done playing football. I just couldn’t do it. A dream cultivated one Sunday at a time, watching Troy Aikman and Brett Favre (my future colleagues!), died.

Or, at least, it evolved into something else entirely.

304. Dispatches on what’s worth writing, vol. ∞

I promise: I’ve been writing. I really have. Lots of words lots of places.

Max and I are finally writing something together about Star Wars and football. Beyond that, I’ve filled a notebook and a half with ideas for a new book. So stop it with the texts and snaps and FB messages about whether I quit this blog. Stop making valid points that prick my creative guilt.

Some of my ideas are so good, in my head at least, that I’m afraid to not do them justice. A familiar writerly insecurity that occasionally becomes paralyzing. I’m not good enough to write this yet; I don’t have the time to write this yet; I can’t commit to publishing a rough draft of something yet, especially when it needs more work.

Which ideas are worth burnishing? How long do you burnish them before putting them on display? When Bono has a final draft of a U2 album prepared, sometimes he’ll destroy the individual tracks used to build it. That way, he’s not tempted to overtinker or raze the album altogether.

My dad’s given me enough demonstrative evidence to know that you should never want creative insecurity to go away. When it does, you’re shot, right? Losing that insecurity just means you’ve severed an important synapse between yourself and criticism. Rob Neyer wrote that within your craft, “the moment you expect charity, you’re admitting your irrelevance.” I’ve always loved that.

Remember when the ace forensics expert in the Scott Peterson trial wilted under cross-examination and asked the prosecution to “cut him some slack,” dooming a guilty man to prison? No? I’m the only one?

Well, that’s as good a note to end on as any.

303. Advice from a reformed food monkey

When my little sister told me she got her first job, sure there was pride, and some melancholy, too, about how quickly she’s growing up without me. She’s officially driving, working a part-time job, giving me advice about girls and getting grounded for making questionable decisions regarding her own safety.

She’s truly a teenager now.  

But when she told me the job was at Fuddruckers — that bastion of corporate burger Americana proudly operating under the unspoken slogan “We’re not quite Applebees!” — I felt a visceral and involuntary rush of blood through the same arteries that place yearned to clog.

I worked at the Billings Heights Fuddruckers from sophomore year through high school graduation. It was exactly the kind of job you’d imagine it would be, but I earned a little money, made out with a couple coworkers off-shift and never really hated myself for it. Isn’t that what you want out of a high school job?

I love my sister, and I want her to succeed. I don’t want her to scrape by for the first few months like I did, constantly wondering if the sauerkraut needs replacing (it doesn’t; that’s how it smells fresh) or trying to get myself put on table-wiping duty so I could watch ESPN while I worked.

So I wrote her a list of tips I learned during my three years or so taking food orders and essential income from Billings, Montana’s middle-class families:

  1. You can like ranch dressing or make it. One or the other. There is no middle ground.
  2. No matter how busy it gets, there is always enough time in the day to sneak into the freezer and eat an uncooked chocolate chip cookie.
  3. Don’t put beef on a baked potato for a customer. That’s not a thing.
  4. Pretending you have to crack your back or neck is a good way to avoid getting in trouble for wiping down tables reeeealllly slowly because you’re watching ESPN.
  5. Flirting gets you tips. For me, it was with volleyball buses that would roll in during state tournaments. For you? I dunno, chess-club meetings? (This is mean, in retrospect. My sister is definitely good enough for a student council kid…)
  6. Subtly try to secure as many workshirts as possible. You can never have too many, and you won’t need to worry about them washing them as often.
  7. If the manager likes you, he’ll talk to you while you’re working. But if you talk to him too much, you’ll get in trouble. The plight of the unskilled laborer.
  8. There Will Be Coworker Drama.a
  9. People will order the one-pound burger. And they will eat it. I don’t know why. No one knows why. America is full of inexplicable monsters of gluttony.
  10. If you’re lucky, like me, it will be the worst job you ever have in your life. But it’s honestly not even that bad. Kick ass. Proud of you. Oh! Also! Always volunteer to get more cups from the back. That’s the best place to hide and text.

302. Pace

Researchers at Pacific University … discovered that men tend to slow down their pace by an average of 7 percent when walking with female partners of the romantic variety.

Women walking together moved even more slowly than they do with their male partners. Researchers in the same study suggested that this might signal the intimacy of female friendships. Meanwhile, men walking with male friends moved at speeds faster than either individual’s preferred walking speed.

So, ladies, next time you want to know if a guy likes you, count out his steps aloud. Watch them quicken, you weirdo.

In another life, I think I could’ve made a go at being a sociologist. I love this kind of stuff. The practical uses for knowledge about subconscious human interaction seems exploitative and crass, all serial daters and salesmen. But it’s also a good reminder that we’re all sophisticated and chemically balanced animals.

301. Grantland

ESPN announced today that it was shutting down Grantland. I’ll leave my thoughts on the whole thing to this:  

I was 20 when Grantland launched.

I was short on experience and long on ambition. I had passed the phase of my life where I loved everything Bill Simmons wrote, but I admired the boldness to which he committed to staking out a corner of the journalism world not always accepted by the reigning kings of journalism.

To be honest, I just wanted to work there. A lot of the personal writing I did back then reads like I was auditioning for a spot in their writing stable. It’s spec script stuff. It’s hard for me to reread because it was so overt in its imitation. But I also had fun writing it, and parts of that will always stay with me. This week, Max and I are writing a Star Wars & NFL story that would seem infinitely more facile if Grantland hadn’t ever existed.

By not taking itself so seriously, the site served as a beacon of irreverence. It was unswervingly cool, especially for young writers of a certain mindset and ambition. And it had some really damn good writing.

Over the years, as the journalists it influenced themselves become more influential, the impact Grantland had will be lionized and (probably) exaggerated. Because journalistic tastemakers loved Grantland, this process is already happening on Twitter hours after the announcement.

In fact, a lot of analysis and eulogies and autopsies are going to occur over the next few days, but those don’t interest me much.

To me, the site’s lasting impact has nothing to do with what went wrong and why. It mattered because it taught a bunch of young people like me that the industry can still be the meritocracy we all envision it to be when we enter it.

Doesn’t matter what you write; if it’s good, if it’s true, someone will listen.

300. Woah! Three hundo!

Wow! Neato! The big 3-0-0!  

“But Matt! Didn’t you miss, like, 45 days or something?”

I’m lucky that I can see the analytics. A lot of you read these — I’m not sure why — and even though it occasionally feels like I’m locked in a padded WordPress cell talking to myself, I want to thank those (dozens!) of you that have ridden with me on this stupid little journey over the last 10 months.

And now I want to talk about the word “whoa.”

Why do so many people spell it wrong?

Here’s Colin Cowherd hitting you with a hard and fast “WOAH.” I’m being a little unfair to lead with his example because I’ve known people ever since I primarily started talking to them through written digital missives (my first “girlfriend” in middle school actually spelled it “woah” and even then, I thought it was kinda bullshit).

But Colin’s example is the most recent, the most irritating and the most high-profile example I’ve found in a long time.

My main problem is that “woah” wouldn’t even be pronounced “whoa.” It would be, like, “woe-AH” and that’s not the same word.

The ALWAYS REPUTABLE Grammar Girl calls it a misspelling, which is exactly what it is. And it’s not just an occasional misfire on the keyboard. I’ve known several otherwise highly functional and intelligent people relentlessly refuse to spell “whoa” the correct way. Is it the Keanu meme? Is Internet Culture just the cement shoes dragging proper grammar to a watery grave?

I know what you’re thinking: “Language is quite varied. Hey, man. You have to accept that it moves on with or without your approval.”

Alright, that was just J at work.

But what if we ALL felt that way about everything? Who would stand up for democracy? Who be our public defender of language? If there’s one thing the internet needs more of, it’s angry people who correct your grammar. Real vaccuum there.

I asked some friends why so many people spell it “woah.” Some answers:

“Because they’re frustrated little people who are unable to express themselves.”

“Idk man. Heathens.”

“who said that”

Four other friends enemies ignored me.

Happy 300.

299. The 15 best Disney Channel Original Movies

I stopped watching Disney Channel Original Movies shortly after I became a teenager, so I’m making the arbitrary cut-off for entries on this list to be my 13th birthday.There are also a handful of these that I either never saw or didn’t remember, so some liberal Googling was done.

Even so, this list is final and definite. It would start with Blank Check, but that is technically not a DCOM, so it gets an honorary spot above the list itself.

Here we go:

  1. Smart House
    One of the OGs. Robomoms are cool.
  2. The Luck Of The Irish
    True story: After this movie came out, I pretended that I could riverdance. Also, this has one of my favorite all-time mic drop movie comebacks: “My father’s from Cleveland.” SNAP.
  3. Brink!
    Skate better.
  4. Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century
    One of my more serious childhood crushes. Zoom, zoom, zoom.
  5. Johnny Tsunami
    I’m going to pretend like they didn’t destroy the legacy of this venerable franchise with a sequel in 2007.
  6. Cadet Kelly
  7. Halloweentown
    Maybe this is just because Halloween is coming up.
  8. Eddie’s Million Dollar Cookoff
    I actually don’t remember that much about this movie, other than the legendary food fight. I was way into food fights for awhile after I saw this movie.
  9. Alley Cats Strike
    I know the ending is really dumb, but come on, it’s a bowling movie.
  10. Don’t Look Under The Bed
    This one legitimately scared me as a kid. It was even bumped from G to PG because of the “frightening scenes.” The Boogeyman is no joke.
  11. Horse Sense
    Max still calls me this to degrade me. You know, because of the Montana thing.
  12. Jett Jackson: The Movie
  13. The Even Stevens Movie
    Boy, when stacked against the rest of the actors who appeared in movies on this list, Shia’s career is pretty damn remarkable.
  14. The Scream Team
  15. Zenon: The Zequel

298. Bad

The temptation, of course, is to stretch the good ideas out and cover as many days as possible. That’s not my goal anymore. And it’s not a failure, either; it’s an acceptance both of what this has evolved into and what I need it to be, for me.  

I came into this year convinced that the way to heal emotionally was to get stronger physically and intellectually. Isn’t that kind of an immature way of approaching it? But I didn’t know any better way, and while all it really did was distract me, that was okay. It was sort of like drinking the antidote with the snake still latched onto your neck.

Time. That’s it, really. Just takes time.

I’m enormously lucky that I’ve lived a life free of major trauma. I once joked to E that I couldn’t write a good novel because I’d never been truly, irrevocably injured. It was a gallows joke at the sea bed of a heavy conversation, but I do think that the best of us, the ones who make transformative insights into our condition, suffer things in their lives that crack them open so wide, they don’t care who sees inside while they try to heal. That’s not me, and I hope it never is.

But everyone has problems, and hopefully everyone has solutions. Mine sit close.

I’m wide awake. I’m not sleeping.

297. Jimi Hendrix drew a picture of Elvis Presley that looks like Donald Trump

It’s 1957, and Elvis and the Jordanaires are in Seattle. The crowd is about 90 percent teenage girls, but one of the few boys in the audience is a 14-year-old Jimi Hendrix.  

Elvis makes a big impact on Young Hendrix, especially with his swagger. At one point during the show, Elvis asks everyone to stand at attention for the national anthem. Then, he launches into “Hound Dog.” The King in his kingdom.

A few months after the show, Hendrix draws a picture of Elvis surrounded by the names of his hit songs.

It looks exactly like Donald Trump.

Like, exactly.