by Taylor Plimpton, September 17, 2010 10:35 AM
Back in the days when I was first learning about letting go, I got to know a certain dog at the beach. He was a golden retriever, and he seemed to belong more to the beach itself than to any one person. The lower half of him was perpetually dripping from his adventures in the sea, and no matter his mischief — no matter whose sandwich leftovers he sniffed at, or which elderly ladies he shook himself dry on, the wet-dog spray sparkling in the sun — I never heard an owner's voice call him back.
He was generally a good dog, though, and it was hard not to like him. Even my mom, who has never been a dog person and enjoys her beach serene and dog-less, took a liking to the thing. Indeed, it was my mom, a spiritual being at heart, who named the nameless dog "the won't let go dog."
The thing the dog wouldn't let go of was a tennis ball, of course. He carried the ball always — he'd had it so long now it was gray-green and moldy, the color of seaweed — and he kept it almost hidden, way up towards the back of his big-toothed, grinning mouth. It was forever amusing to see the random dog-lover attempt to coax (and then, failing calmer methods, wrestle) the ball from his mouth. It never worked: the dog's jaw was as strong as a vise. Of course, just as the guy was giving up and turning to walk away, the retriever would give a little friendly bark, and let the ball drop gently to the sand. The man, smiling and thinking to himself, So, that's your game, would turn and bend to pick up the ball, at which point the dog would snatch it up in his teeth, and the whole dance would begin again. My mom and I would sit there watching it all and laughing.
I partook in these dances myself, but I had studied and practiced and finally mastered the art of getting the ball from the dog that wouldn't let it go. The first thing you had to realize was that there was nothing in the whole wide world that this dog wanted more than to let go of the ball so that then you could throw it to him. He was a retriever. The urge to chase down that ball was in his bones — every atom of him quivered with it. At the same time, the dog was petrified of releasing the thing. Perhaps there had been trauma in his puppy years, teenagers who had taken his ball but, instead of throwing it to him, had kept it for themselves, or maliciously tossed it over an un-leapable fence. The plain fact was, for whatever reason, as much as he wanted to give you the ball so that you could throw it to him, as much as that was his greatest and only want, it was his greatest and only fear.
And so you had to be patient with the dog, allow him to work through his neuroses. But the biggest trick was simply this: somehow, you had to convince the dog you wanted the ball less than he did.
From a distance, crouched there nose to nose, motionless, the sea behind us, we must have looked like we were communicating, having some secret, silent conversation. But the fact is, each of us were only talking to ourselves. I was telling myself, Do not think about the ball, let go of your want for the ball, want it not and the dog will let you have it, do not reach for it, be desireless, indifferent, avert your eyes, gaze out to sea... And the dog was thinking, Maybe I should give this guy the ball, but wait, no, he might take it, but wait, if I let him have it, HE'LL THROW IT TO ME! But wait, no, if he takes it away, I might lose it forever, but wait, he doesn't even seem to really want it, so maybe I can trust him, but wait, no... And all this time he was rolling the ball around his mouth and dropping it to the sand and snatching it up just as quickly, letting it go and then pulling it right back up into those teeth, gnawing at it, letting it go, and as time went by and I sat there patiently waiting, the dog would release the thing a little longer each time, let it roll a little closer to me, until, finally, in a lightning-like sweep of my hand, I would snatch the ball from beneath the dog's twitching nose and leap up and he would leap up too and I would throw the ball in a long, graceful arc down the length of the beach, and the dog, free at last from his dilemma, would bound happily through the sand after his ball and
by Taylor Plimpton, September 16, 2010 11:34 AM
It was a fine, sunny day in Central Park, and I was walking through it, thinking of nothing. A couple hundred yards in from the west side of the park, two large, rather menacing-looking men with a bass and violin were playing the most beautiful classical music I'd ever heard, haunting yet warm, and I paused to stand there for a moment in the sunlight and listen.
A young man nearby was doing the same. Noticing me, he wandered over, smiled, and said, "Beautiful, isn't it?"
"My God, yes..." I replied. "Do you know what it is? Bach? Mozart?"
"I don't know," he said softly, a little distracted, as if there was something more pressing on his mind. Then he turned to me and studied my face — "You look like a smart guy..."
"Thanks," I said.
"Let me ask you something: What do you notice about all these people?" He made a sweeping gesture at everyone around us.
We were at a busy intersection in the park, and I looked around at the bikers, the joggers, the dog-walkers. "I don't know... They're all going somewhere?"
"Yes!" he said, his eyes lighting up. Though he had no accent, he seemed of middle-eastern descent, with curly black hair and a soft face, his eyes large and brown and expressive. "Exactly! They're all going somewhere. But let me ask you this: how are they getting there?"
"Some are walking, some are biking..."
"No, no, no... What direction are they moving?"
"Exactly! Everyone's moving forward! Look around you —" he made another sweeping gesture — "Everyone's going somewhere. Where are they going? Forward! It's where people go. It's what people do. It's all we can do."
"Well, what if you sit still? Look at those people: They're just lying around the lawn, not really moving at all."
"Yes, but later on, when they get up to go somewhere, they'll do it moving forward. Trust me," he said, nodding reassuringly, "there's no other direction we can go."
I took a couple steps backwards to prove him wrong. He laughed and took two quick steps forward to close the distance... "Ah, yes, but your eyes were still looking forward, and you couldn't see what was behind you — we cannot see what is behind us — you were moving into the unknown, and it couldn't have felt very comfortable. I'm a physicist," he said, "I've studied it. But you don't need to be a physicist to see it — you can see it now! Look!" he cried, seizing my arm with one hand and, with the other, pointing out a horse and carriage charging by. "It's moving forward! And look!" he cried, as a bicyclist whizzed by, and then another, and then a jogger. "Look! Look!" And when a man and woman strolled past us with a baby carriage, he whispered it now, nodding towards them secretively and drawing me in close — "Look!"
And, of course, it was true what he was saying — the evidence was indisputable — but I just wasn't quite sure what the hell his point was, and he was getting a little close, his eyes a little wild. As if sensing this, he released my arm, stepped back, and changed the topic, gesturing up at the sky. "Look," he said, gently now, almost sadly. "Look up at the sky. Did you know that when I look up there I can see the atoms, the molecules, swirling about in the air?"
"What, do you mean the little squiggly floaty things?"
"Yes. Not everyone can see them. Only some of us."
I considered not saying the following, but said it anyway: "I think those are just little things floating around in the film of your eye, man."
"Oh, no, no, no," he said. "They're atoms. The stuff of the universe. And you're lucky you can see them. Not many people can."
I nodded, and as we stood there looking up at the blue sky swirling with madness and electricity, the men with the instruments drew to the close of their beautiful song, and there was a moment of silence, which I seized.
"Well, I gotta move forward myself," I said, and shook his hand goodbye.
"We all do," he said, sadly.
÷ ÷ ÷
It is only now, writing this, that I remember the girl on the beach. It was an empty, lonely beach — off-season in the islands — and I was sitting by myself, which is why I noticed her figure in the distance, slender and feminine, coming slowly towards me down the sand. As she drew closer, I could see there was something not quite right about her posture and the way she was moving, something odd, and her long dark hair seemed to hang forward over her face, hiding it. And then I realized what it was. She was walking backwards down the beach, gingerly picking each foot up with great care and purpose and gently placing it behind her in the sand, so that each footprint would be a perfect one, leading off in a trail toward places she'd already been. Every now and then, but only every now and then, she would glance behind her to make sure there were no obstructions on her path, and soon when she turned I could see her face, lovely and young, a little playful smile on her lips — and she looked so beautiful walking backwards, like she knew it didn't really matter which direction she went, forwards, backwards, sideways, it was all the same, all of it absurd, all of us, in the end, just going around and around in wonderful, senseless circles, one way or the next...
Or maybe she simply liked the way her footprints looked, disappearing off into the distances from which she'd
by Taylor Plimpton, September 15, 2010 10:38 AM
Growing up in the eastern Long Island summers, I always took the potato bug to mean good things: big, rich fields of strawberry and potato and corn, dirt bomb wars with friends, the smell of the earth, and of the sea. A potato bug meant good luck, like a ladybug, only the masculine version, dressed in somber brown pinstripes instead of polka dots.
So the other day, when one flew over to us at the beach and landed on my girlfriend's towel, I took it as a good sign. "It's a potato bug," I said, happily. Lizzy saw it as a good sign, too, and took the thing gently up in her hand. It was the biggest potato bug I'd ever seen, and we brought our noses in close to inspect it. It looked like an alien, a monster, something from 500 million years ago. "It's amazing," Lizzy said. It was.
And so was Lizzy. I found her bravery beautiful, her curiosity uplifting. I mean, here was this little monster perched on her pinky looking rather menacing, and yet she was holding it without the slightest hesitation — with a perfect calm — and it was lovely.
And then it bit her. "Ow!" she shook the thing off into the sand. "That little bastard bit me!"
The bug landed on its back about a foot away, and was struggling to right itself, its six legs swimming in the air, trying to get ahold of something. "That's right, you little bastard," I scolded it. "You just lie there and think about what you've done."
Lizzy was examining her pinky, which showed no mark. "I can't believe it bit you," I said. "I didn't even know they could bite."
"Me neither. The funny thing is, it kinda looked like it was getting ready to bite me, but somehow I just didn't think it would. Little shit," she said, and flung a handful of sand on the thing, half-burying it.
"Yeah, it looked kinda menacing to me, too... Of course, now it's gonna be really pissed off at you." As if on cue, the tiny beast dug itself out, and started to come right at Lizzy.
For the first time, she showed some alarm — "Taylor, will you do something about this, please?" I stood up, gathered a pile of sand in my hands with the potato bug on top, walked quickly over to the dunes, and dropped the pile over the fence...
÷ ÷ ÷
Several days later, Lizzy and I were sitting outside her mom's house on the patio underneath the trees on a windy afternoon, when suddenly there was a quiet but nonetheless audible WHACK, and Lizzy goes, "Oww — what the fuck?" A sizable acorn had fallen and struck her on the back. "I must be out of balance or something. I think Nature's out to get me."
÷ ÷ ÷
A couple of days after that, Lizzy's mom's dogs chewed up her plastic Invisalign retainer like it was a squeaky toy.
÷ ÷ ÷
And then there was the bat. This was a week or two later, at my mom's place. Like a good son, I had prepared the outside of the house for a hurricane that never came. (It was windier when Lizzy got hit by the acorn than it was during the height of the "hurricane.") Anyway, I was taking my sweet time un-preparing the house, righting a table or two one day, re-hanging the bird feeders another (I still have yet to replace the wind-chimes), and upon inserting one of the big sun umbrellas back into the center of a newly righted round wooden table, I discovered a good-sized wolf spider and nest towards the top of the still-bound umbrella, and, terrified of spiders (especially fast hunchy hairy ones like wolf spiders), I decided to wait on opening up the umbrella.
In fact, the next day, I asked Zoo to do it. (Zoo, by the way, is the other main character in my new memoir, a smooth-talking master of nightlife negotiations who is first and foremost a great friend, and he and his girlfriend were staying at my mom's house for Labor Day weekend.) So we were all out on the porch — me, my mom, Lizzy, Zoo, and his girl — and my mom asked me to put up the umbrella, and, eyeing the remains of the spider's nest apprehensively, I said, "Zoo, would you mind doing it, dude? There was a big spider up there yesterday." And Zoo shook his head and laughed and so did everyone else, and being a good friend, he proceeded to unfurl the umbrella.
It was only when it was almost completely extended that Zoo noticed something huddled up there on the inside. "What is that?"
I took a look at it. "It's a bat."
"Woaa!" Zoo ducked quickly back and away, like a boxer dodging a punch. (Zoo, who is afraid of mice even when they don't fly, had finally realized what he'd been looking at.) "Yo, dude," he said, taking another couple steps back, "that is so not cool."
But the rest of us thought it was cool, and we gathered under the umbrella to peer up at it. It was a small bat with little round ears and a snub little nose, and it looked almost cute, actually, all furry and sleepy and disoriented, clinging to the dark underside of the fabric and making little wriggling movements like it was trying to cuddle up and go back to sleep.
Then it dropped, and spread its wings, and flew out into the sunlight, out towards us, and I jumped back, and said, "Woaa!" and so did everybody else, and typical bat chaos ensued: everyone ducking and shouting and screaming and laughing, and the poor bat blinded by the sun fluttering this way and that, nowhere to go — everywhere horrible daylight and huge monsters roaring and waving their hands — landing on the screen door and clinging there for a moment with its arm-like wings, and the thing wasn't cute anymore, not with those pale arm-wings jerkily climbing up the screen like some mutant gargoyle, and then it would release and fly at us again, and we were all swerving and dodging and doubled-over laughing and I was screaming like a little girl, and by this time Zoo had fled the porch for the safety of the lawn and the bat was back up under the umbrella, and then it released again, and all of a sudden my mom stops laughing long enough to shout out, "It's headed right for Lizzy!"
And it was, it was flapping right for her, and of course it was, I could see it all about to happen, the bat's destination her hair, where it would land and become entangled, flapping those horrible pallid wing-claws and tangling itself up further, finally deciding to sink its sharp little fruit fangs into her scalp in a last-ditch effort to escape, yes, this would be the climax of her recent struggles with nature, bit by a bat on a sunny summer day.
I tensed and, like a good boyfriend, waited to see what would happen.
But at the last moment, the bat lifted up and away from Lizzy's poor tired ducking laughing hand-shielded head, did a graceful arc into the sunlight, and swooped back around and down and up and under to the shade of the umbrella, where it stayed, awaiting the
by Taylor Plimpton, September 14, 2010 10:15 AM
It is an exciting time in professional tennis — perhaps the most riveting era in the sport's history — and no one seems to care.
Last year, Roger Federer captured his first French Open title. In one fell swoop, he completed his career grand slam (meaning at least one win at each of the four major tournaments), tied Sampras's record of 14 grand slam victories (Fed now owns 16), and secured his place as the greatest player of all time.
And then there's Rafael Nadal, who, with his win over Novak Djokovic last night at the U.S. Open, just completed his own career grand slam at the age of 24 — three years younger than Federer was when he did it. (He also now has nine major titles to his name, three more than Roger at that age, and owns a 14-7 edge in head-to-head matches.) Nadal is well on track to challenge Federer's numerous records, and surpass them. In other words, the two best players who ever lived are playing right now, and no one is watching... Are you still reading?
Of course, we didn't get the Federer-Nadal final that fans were hoping for — Federer actually had two match points in Saturday's semifinal to make that happen, but Novak Djokovic stole them away with two of the ballsiest shots I've ever seen (as Novak said later, only half-joking, I was just closing my eyes and hitting forehands as fast as I can) — and it probably didn't help the ratings either that the rains moved in to push the scheduled Sunday prime-time final back to Monday TV no-man's land (the third year in a row that's happened now). But even if it had all come together just right, would anyone have watched?
According to a recent article in the New York Observer, no one's been watching for a while now.
As the piece mentions, not since the golden age of McEnroe and Connors have the Nielsen ratings for tennis been truly impressive... Part of the recent lapse in viewers is that, excepting perhaps Andy Roddick (who pushed Federer to a classic five-set marathon final at Wimbledon last year, and almost took it), we haven't really had an American to rally behind, at least not one who can match up to Rafa and Roger. (Not that anyone else can match up to them, either: of the last 26 grand slam finals, Nadal and Federer have captured 23.)
Another part of the apparent malaise with the sport is the collective illusion — perhaps left over from the days of one-two serve-and-volley/ serve-and-forehand tennis — that the points are over too quick; that there's nothing to see; that bigger, stronger players with better equipment hitting the ball harder than ever has ruined the sport, reduced it to drama-less action. But what these naysayers haven't noticed (I'm not sure they've tried watching) is that as the offense improved, so did the defense. People crack the hell out of the ball, yes, but they're also fast as demons, hustling and scrambling around the court and hunting down balls that would have been clear winners in another age. Points are back to being mini-dramas in their own right — in yesterday's final, there were numerous 20-plus-stroke rallies, long, hard-fought battles of the will packed with every shot imaginable, crushed forehands followed by the finesse of a drop-shot, or the graceful arc of a lob, offense switching to defense and back again, a screaming passing shot from Rafa, ridiculous, impossible, to end it all — points as intricate as a chess match, as grueling as a war. Yes, a good point now is a thing of beauty, and yesterday the crowd at the US Open recognized that with numerous standing ovations...
David Foster Wallace wrote a wonderful profile in 2006 entitled "Federer as Religious Experience," which I definitely recommend you read.
But it seems to me that, unlike back then, it's no longer just Federer bending space and time and doing the impossible — now it's the whole sport. It's Rafa and his relentless focus, it's Djokovic and his heart, it's the gloomy Scot, Murray, and his crafty consistency. It's the unbelievable power of Del Potro, the gentle Argentinian giant cracking his 100 mph forehands, and of Soderling, and of Berdych... But it is, of course, still Roger and Rafa who are inspiring most of the awe these days, which is why everyone loves to see them battle it out against each other. (If you've never seen them play, track down their 2008 Wimbledon final, which is widely thought to be the best match ever.)
They are an interesting pair, these two greats. After all, when taken together, they perfectly define the modern game: a thrilling combination of power and finesse, offense and defense, speed and skill. Consider Roger — slender, graceful on his feet, his tennis a thing of elegance, his miracles performed spontaneously, effortlessly, as if he weren't even really trying. With Rafa — built like a bull, a bundle of muscles and fast-twitch nerves — you can see the effort, his every motion filled with will and determination, sweat and grit. While Roger floats silently above the court, always somehow where he needs to be before he needs to be there, you can hear Rafa pound across the concrete as he chases down shots at full sprint. You can see the intensity on his face, too — a constant scowl of concentration, the forehead creased, the eyes laser-focused — and it is a thing of wonder, when the match is done, to witness this big, boyish grin replace the hard, determined lines, to realize that this beast of an athlete is just a shy, humble 24-year-old kid who speaks English with a sweet, uncertain accent, and prefaces almost everything he says with, "Thank you very much." It is always amazing to see the human beneath the machine.
Which is what we've seen with Federer as of late. Not that watching him play has become any less of a religious experience — magic still emerges from his racket regularly — it's simply become a human experience, too. What kind of profile would David Foster Wallace have penned now, now that Federer has shown himself to be not just a genius, but a man? Now that we've seen this gentle-mannered soul smash his racket into the court, shocking the crowd into silence; now that we've seen his stoic Greek-god demeanor crack into an unforgettably fragile torrent of tears, as it did twice, in front of millions, after five-set defeats at the hands of Nadal. Now that we know how much the sport means to him. Now that he's no longer breezing through three grand-slam finals a year; now that he has to fight for every victory, and demonstrate not just his skill, but his heart...
It is an exciting time in tennis. Will Rafa's body, already battered by his physical style of play, hold up long enough for him to break Roger's records? Will another great soon emerge to truly challenge the dominant two? And is Roger's time nearly up?
Every time Federer loses a match, someone asks that last question. But I have a feeling he'll stick around a while longer — doing what he loves, adding to his tally, reluctant to leave that discussion of who's the greatest up to the fate of Rafa's knees. And it's a good thing, too. It means there's a chance that the best tennis
by Taylor Plimpton, September 13, 2010 10:44 AM
It is a fine, drizzly Portland day in New York City. Having spent some four years of my life at Reed College, I remember these days with a certain fondness… There is, after all, a comfort in this kind of rain, in this soft, gray blanket thrown over the world. Shelter, often taken for granted, inspires sudden gratitude. Warm and dry, one feels especially warm and dry. Best of all, one does not feel guilty lounging on the couch all hung over and cozy and doing a whole lot of nothing, which is what I've been doing today. Yes, a fine Portland rain goes well with a Sunday hangover. The way the day feels — soft, hazy, sleepy — is the way you feel. You are in tune with nature, and it is a fine feeling.
Of course, I've been back in New York since I graduated from Reed College, some 11 years now, and here in the big city these rainy Portland days are few and far between, which is most likely why I remember them with such fondness and nostalgia, and am so appreciative of the rain today. But I have not forgotten that when you live in Oregon, that wet-dog winter drizzle can get to you. If there were shamans who could sing the sun into existence, and dance the clouds away, surely they would gravitate to the Northwest. With this in mind, the following…
Sun-making is best practiced in Portland, OR, where it rains a lot. There's no real point, however, in attempting it on a truly dismal winter day, when the clouds are uniform and endless, heavy as the sea, and the rain is a constant and a given. Even the strongest sun-maker will fail in weather like this....
Better to try a spring day in Portland, one that starts with a fine rain, soft and delicate, gracing your cheeks. The clouds above should be lighter, and behind them, there should be the sense of the sun. Yes, to be a sun-maker, you must be able to sense the sun — where it is, and what it wants to do (it wants to burn through the clouds and shine down on all that wet green land). In this way, a sun-maker's job is simply one of encouragement. You are reminding the sun of your appreciation, coaxing it out with flattery.
Sun-making is also a matter of faith. There can be no second-guessing, no doubt; your mind must be open, yet focused, as clear and bright as a desert sky. Looking up at the white-washed heavens, blinking up into the soft rain, you must feel the sun on your face — not just imagine it, but actually feel it — the warm, golden glow of it sinking into you, expanding, washing you away. And if you are truly mindless (but for that certain sense of the sun), it will happen. The rain won't lift, not yet, but the sun begins to shine through — ah, those beautiful sunny rains of Portland — a sudden fairy-tale land of jeweled leaves and grass and air, everywhere droplets light-struck and a-sparkle, rainbows gracing rooftops and old sad trees. And it is a miracle you have performed (though you must feel no pride, or the clouds will condense again: sun-making is necessarily an egoless profession), you have conjured out the sun in one of the rainiest places on earth, and up in the sky you can see it, hot, yellow, happy, burning through a haze of white clouds and shining down on the wet city, and suddenly everyone in Portland is a sun-maker, looking up and smiling and feeling the warmth of it on their faces, their sense of the sun final and certain. The rain has stopped, and with all these sun-makers there's no chance it will return, not for a while, at least. It is a sunny day in Portland, and all because of you....