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Cocktail Hour

George Sheehan on Being a Writer-Athlete

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sheehan          As a teacher, my reading is circumscribed during the parts of the year I call “terms,” restricted for the most part to the books I’ve assigned and the writing of my students. For the most part. The exception comes during the hour or two I spend in my writing shack each night around cocktail hour, a period of time during which I read whatever the hell I want. Often, as I’ve described in here before, I jump from book to book, looking for chunks of words—sometimes mere snippets, sometimes whole chapters–that inspire me or make me think about my life and work a little differently and that, hopefully, quicken my pulse.


The exception to this rough schedule is the termless times, the periods when school mercifully slackens. Then all reading time becomes shack reading time. Sometimes I read specifically for my own writing. For instance, I’m just now starting to write Ultimate Glory, my memoir and history of Ultimate Frisbee, and so to get my energy up and get in the right frame of mind I’ve been re-reading David Halberstam’s The Amateurs and Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, which is a fantastic example not just of high energy writing but of the sort of deep reporting I hope to do. But a lot of my shack reading is less conscious, more ragtag, and I read, as Johnson put it, “by inclination.” This doesn’t always work and when it doesn’t I sit there bored, uninspired.


But occasionally there is some random magic. This happened last week when I dug into an old box of books and came up with Dr. Sheehan on Fitness. George Sheehan was a doctor, runner and a writer who wrote regular essays for Runner’s World magazine during the ‘70s and ‘80s. I got into his work back in my twenties, when I lived mostly Continue reading →

Bad Advice Wednesday: Fifteen Things for When the World is Shitty and Terrifying

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour / Guest Columns

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Laquan MacDonald was seventeen and murdered by a Chicago police officer in cold blood. I watched a video of his murder, along with most of America, right in between reading about how Americans are terrified of letting refugees from war-torn Syria into the country, and reading about how a man with a rifle opened fire at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado, and now hearing about San Bernadino.

I can’t think of anything else to say that hasn’t already been said about how horrible and sad and awful and bleak and shitty and unfathomable all of those things are. I can’t. I don’t have the words for that today. So instead, here are fifteen things that you can do to make your world just the tiniest bit less shitty and terrible.

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Bad Santa

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So a few of my grad students asked me to join them last Friday for their holiday reading at our local radio station. In return they would give me a six-pack of IPA. The catch?  I had to dress up as Santa. And not the nice, jolly Santa either. That other Santa…..Ho Ho Ho….

badsanta 2


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Lundgren’s Lounge: “City on Fire,” by Garth Risk Hallberg

categories: Cocktail Hour / Reading Under the Influence

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During the 3 or 4 days that I was immersed in this novel it was like an appendage, a siren that summoned me from the depths of sleep at 3 a.m: ‘Oh, yes, the book.’  And reach over to turn on the reading light, dive back into the tumultuous world of New York City during a few months in 1976-1977.

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Bill and Dave’s Live at Space Gallery in Portland

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We had a great night in Portland featuring Bill, Dave, Bill Lundgren, Kate Miles, Kate Christensen and Dave’s eyebrows.



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Bad Advice Wednesday: Get Thrown Out of Libraries

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By special guest Ginger Strand:


I only cried twice at the Lilly Library while researching my new book The Brothers Vonnegut. Indiana University’s beautiful archive has most of Kurt Vonnegut’s early drafts and letters, and I visited it several times while working on the book. The first time I cried was when I was going through a box of miscellaneous stuff and Kurt Vonnegut’s passport popped out. There he was, smiling up at me with that self-ironic grin. Overwhelmed with a sudden sense of loss, as if I had known him personally, I burst into tears. This never fails to draw furtive glances from fellow readers and concerned stares from reading room staff fearful you might do some harm to the paper.


vonnegutt book

The second time was on another visit, when I was reading letters Kurt wrote to his daughter Nanette during his separation from her mother. The letters were so raw, so real, so filled with the agony of failed marriage and the confounding anxieties of parenthood, that I couldn’t help weeping as I read them. I soldiered on that way for a while, reading and sniffling, but eventually I did step outside to collect myself. I myself feared I might do some harm to the paper.


I always seem to be the only one weeping in the archive. Or doing a happy dance when I discover something great. (I try to disguise it as standing up to stretch.) Or giggling. There was one point when I was researching my first book of nonfiction, Inventing Niagara, when I thought I might be forcibly ejected from the American Antiquarian Society for giggling. I was reading some very early accounts of explorers in the New World, and they were hilarious. Other readers were glancing over. The American Antiquarian Society, a national research library housed in a Colonial revival building in Worcester, Mass., is a rather formal archive, with scads of rare books and periodicals, and scads more rules and regulations about how you may interact with them. You sit in a grand, paneled reading room with portraits—founders presumably—glaring down on you. You wear white gloves if you’re handling anything delicate and you can’t so much as go to the bathroom without getting what amounts to a hallway pass from the reading room staff. Continue reading →

Why Wildness Matters

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satelittesThis past weekend the Wall Street Journal ran this review I wrote of Jason Mark’s “Satellites in the High Country.”


Wildness, that important but often vague word, is at the heart of

Jason Mark’s “Satellites in the High Country.” As is this question:

Have we been Googled and GPSed, Facebooked and fracked and generally over-computerized into such domesticated creatures—living in a minutely mapped world of diminished species, diminished biodiversity and diminished space—that experiencing wildness is no longer possible?


Good question, Mr. Mark. Ten years ago I followed the osprey migration

from Cape Cod to Cuba and marveled that, since I was carrying a

cellphone for the first time, I could be tracked just like the

radio-tagged birds I was chasing. As everyone knows, the changes in

the decade since have been head-spinning, but what continues to amaze

me, as a professor, is how technology and its uses change from year to

year, as if a whole new species of Homo sapiens were coming back to

school each fall. Continue reading →

“At Sea,” an excerpt from SUPERSTORM, by Kathryn Miles

categories: Cocktail Hour / Guest Columns / Reading Under the Influence

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Superstorm: Nine Days Inside Hurricane Sandy, by Kathryn Miles

Superstorm Sandy began its genesis as a typical late season tropical storm. However, as the hurricane marched up the east coast of the United States, it collided with a powerful nor’easter and morphed into a monstrous hybrid. The storm charged across open ocean, picking up strength with every step, baffling meteorologists and scientists, officials and emergency managers, even the traditional maritime wisdom of sailors and seamen: What exactly was this thing? Continue reading →

Lundgren’s Lounge: This is Your Life, Harriet Chance, by Jonathan Evison

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Harriet Chance is a true mensch. Mensch as in, “someone to admire and emulate, someone of noble character.” And though some might question the characterization of Harriet as being worthy of emulation, there can be no dispute that she is of noble character. Continue reading →

The Meal of a Lifetime

categories: Cocktail Hour / Guest Columns / Our Best American Essays

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In August of 2010, Brendan and I lived at a three-week artists’ residency in southern Germany. “You’ll live in a castle,” the organizer who’d invited us had promised. So we arrived at the Schloss School, a former monastery turned castle turned boarding school, with visions of candlelit dinners in a grand medieval hall (at least I did) to find that we were to eat three meals a day in a side room of the school cafeteria, with no wine served, with thirty other artists from various countries. (We also slept in dorm rooms, in kiddie beds.) Continue reading →