So my son Emmett is 12, and every night I tuck him in, usually with a chat, a story, a trivia question.
Lately, though, I’ve been doing something different: I read him my next book.
To my great shock, he requested it a few weeks ago. So, four or five nights per week, I sit at the end of his bed and read and read and read. Oftentimes he quietly listens. On occasion he offers suggestions—generally good ones, like a certain word choice or repetitive pattern. I value his input and (more importantly) value the time together.
I’m aware how quickly the kids are growing. Emmett is entering eighth grade, Casey is about to be a high school junior.
So I sit and I read and when I’m done I usually hear the kindest words imaginable.
A solid 80 percent of nonfiction book writing sucks.
I’m not exaggerating. Eighty percent. Maybe more. You work long hours. You make call after call after call. You either transcribe your interviews (which blows) or you pay a service to transcribe your interviews (which also blows). You go through days where every work that leaves your brain and winds up on a laptop screen is awful. You go through days where cliches mistakenly seem like genius. You go through days where you unload 1,000 words, feel terrific, then realize none of those 1,000 words will make the cut. You go through days (as I did last week) when you accidentally delete stuff you absolutely, positively could not afford to accidentally delete.
Writing is mental torture. You love hate love late love hate love hate hate hate everything you produce. You stay up until the wee hours, guzzling coffee that leaves you unable to sleep. Your draft is due in two weeks, but you know that’s impossible. Your editor quits midway through your assignment. Your agent retires. You’re reminded every day of the industry’s woes.
Again—a solid 80 percent of nonfiction book writing sucks.
In the aftermath of his five-second loss to Jorge Masvidal in tonight’s UFC event, Ben Askren dictated this essay to jeffpearlman.com …
Do you see the butterflies? Do you see them? They are floating inside my milk. Milk! Milk!
I like cookies, but my sister dates Cuba Gooding, Jr. Hee hee. That’s funny. Funny bunny. I think when dogs lick the table they are wondering who’s licking the table. But it’s the dog. The dog. The dog. The dog. The dog. The dog. The dog. The dog. The dog. The dog. The dog. The dog. The dog. The dog. The dog. The dog.
My name is Sol. Would you like to buy my shoe? Yummy shoes. Yummy.
I sell shoes. They’re for mittens in the mitten factory. Canned peas taste good. I think. Maybe. Wait. Where am I? I am a broom.
Since we moved to California nearly five years ago, I’ve felt, oh, three or four earthquakes.
None like the one that just transpired.
I’m sitting in a McDonald’s, writing. And—without warning—the floor starts moving. Like a wave beneath your feet. Shaking back and forth, up and down. I look around the restaurant. A guy in the rear (he’s from Texas, he told me), rises and bolts for the exit. The employees in the kitchen march for the front exit, like a military drill. One after another after another.
The thing was long—maybe a minute of nonstop shaking.
It’s a jarring thing to experience. Not scary, but unsettling.
So one year ago, in a moment that still devastates me, I lost the chair and Jewish star pendant I’d worn since age 12.
The mishap happened at the beach, and left me crushed beyond crushed. That star was with me for my Bar Mitzvah, for high school and college graduation, for marriage and funerals and the arrivals of my two kids. It was always there, and I cherished it.
Anyhow, I moved on, but never got over it. And a few months ago, for father’s day, my mom sent me a chain with a Chai. But I don’t really love Chais. They’re big and pointy and sorta uncomfortable dangles. I wanted a Jewish star like the one I had.
Now, I have one.
It’s a quirky replacement. Silver, a bit smaller than the original. It’s also covered in pink beads, and was a long-ago gift for my daughter from a relative who’s no longer a relative. I don’t love it in the way I love the original, but I dig that it’s a star, that it’s small and that it makes me think of my daughter Casey.
There comes a point, when your college days are crawling to a close and you start to wonder what will become of people.
For example, my roommate Paul is an attorney. Our other roommate Dan is a banker. Scott wound up a teacher, Pete a chiropractor, Faz a journalist. You sorta take guesses, and then—as they wander this path we call life—you watch and think, “Hmm, that’s pretty much what I expected” or “Hmm, I didn’t see that coming.”
I didn’t see Barry Pollock coming.
Granted, while Barry and I both ran track and cross country at the University of Delaware, we were never teammates (I lasted on season; he was a star after I was done) or close pals. But we certainly knew each other, and—thanks to social media—as the years have passed we’ve maintained a nice friendship.
So, again, I didn’t see Barry Pollock coming.
When he’s not working as a data scientist in a healthcare engineering field, Barry spends a ton of time as a reenactment fighter, which means he dons 40 pounds of armor made out of leather and steel, then goes into battle. It’s a wild, crazy, fantastical world that (truth be told) I never knew existed. So I thought it’d be groovy to bring Barry here and Quaz him up on a legit fighting community that (dammit) has nothing to do with the shit you see in “Role Models.”
So, while Barry and I weren’t close friends at the University of Delaware, we shared
JEFF PEARLMAN.:So Barry, you’re the first reenactment fighter to be Quazed. Which leads to a pretty easy first question—what is reenactment fighting?
BARRY POLLOCK.: Hi Jeff. Being the first comes with a load of responsibility, so I sure hope I represent the hobby well! The short answer is that reenactment fighting, as I call it, is any kind of fighting that aims to recreate armored combat before the advent of gunpowder. The longer answer is that there are many, many organizations that do this, each with their own sets of rules, goals, culture, etc. Some groups use foam weapons, some wood (rattan), while others use blunted steel. From what I understand, there’s even a group that will do battle inside of a ring of fire!
My experiences are centered mainly around rattan fighting while wearing about 40 pounds of armor made out of leather and steel, most of which I crafted myself. Some people prefer one on one combat in tournaments while I prefer the melee (group) format. These melees can range anywhere from weekly 5 on 5 pickup fights at the local college campus (not unlike pickup basketball) to battles with 1,000 participants on the field at the same time in festivals that can last up to one to two weeks long.
J.P.:How did this happen for you? And what I mean is—I’m 47, I’m a history buff, I’ve lived in different places. Not once, however, have I thought to myself, “Reenactment fighting! Yes!” Literally never crossed my mind as an option.
B.P.: We have a lot of history buffs in the organizations, but I think what is probably most universal is a love for historical and fantasy movies like Excalibur, Braveheart, Lord of the Rings, Gladiator, Game of Thrones, etc. From there you must either enjoy, or at least be able to tolerate, camping, traveling, spending money you don’t have, building and fixing things, being physically active, and last but not least, getting hit with a stick.
My introduction to the hobby isn’t much different than anyone else’s. I met some people who were already doing it. Specifically, I had a job washing dishes at Clayton Hall Conference Center near The Towers at the University of Delaware in 1993. My coworker got fired for doctoring his time cards and subsequently found a new job setting up tables and chairs in the same building, but under different management, and suggested that I come join him. On my first day of work I had found out that literally our entire crew plus one of the shift managers were into the hobby and had just returned from a two week long festival. I told them that I wanted in, and the rest is (pun mostly unintended) history!
Within a year I had scrapped together the ugliest college-poor armor kit you can manage, and found myself on a battle field standing across from 500 or so armored warriors. I had borrowed a helmet from a friend and hadn’t thought try it on before reaching the battle. Minutes before the cannon was to go off (that’s how the battles are begun) I put the helmet on, only to discover that my eyes did not line up with the eye holes in the helmet. So I took the helmet off, stuffed it full of grass, and entered the fight. As I ran across the field, the grass started falling out of the helmet, much of it over my eyes, so I couldn’t see much, anyway. I believe I made it up to the front lines and got clobbered by the first person I got within range of. I guess I enjoyed it enough that I kept coming back for more.
J.P.: I was reading your blog, and am I wrong in comparing this to WWF, where the fighting is all choreographed and predetermined, but a whole bunch of things can variate from the script?
B.P.: That would fall under the category “recreation fighting,” which is not something I’ve ever taken part in. What I do is much more like paintball, except with wooden swords. It’s a medieval themed sport with a set of rules that you must follow. If I hit you in the head or body with a sufficient amount of power, you are out of the fight. If I hit you in the leg, you have to fight from your knees. The goal is for my team to eliminate your team.
Battles are never scripted, but we often have themed scenarios. One team might be guarding a castle gate, while the other team is trying to get inside the castle. Sometimes there will be objects on the field that might represent chests of gold, or livestock, and one team’s goal is to collect all of the objectives while the other team is trying to defend them. I recently fought a battle where everyone was allowed to keep returning to the fight until a ballista (it’s a like a crossbow the size of a cannon) can fire its bolt and hit a target 50 yards down field.
I should also add that the organization that I participate in the most, the Society for Creative Anachronism, is a historical society that goes way beyond just the fighting, but in terms of my personal interests I’m really there primarily for the fighting. Also of note, there’s a very good Amazon Prime video called Off the Cuf (with one “f”) that does a 45 minute documentary of the largest SCA festival in the world, Pennsic (of which I’ve attended 20 times).
Barry (left) during his days at Delaware.
J.P.: As we speak, you work as a data scientist in a healthcare engineering field. Also as we speak, we have a president and an administration that shows little interest in analyzing data, in science, in math, in reason. And I wonder, as a guy with your background, how you’re feeling about things these days?
B.P.: The anti-intellectualism of society, in general, is very frustrating. Very few people actually understand how to analyze data, and many of those same people will trust their gut instincts over a team of “egg headed” scientists. I had been involved in many Internet debates where people were claiming that the planet had stopped warming around 1998. Though I was not a climate scientist, I knew how to read data and was trying my darndest to show people that the patterns did not, in fact, show and end to the warming trends. They had the luxury of believing what they wanted because they were simply unable to grasp the math. The warming trends have since gone up again, as I predicted. Though some of these people may have since accepted that they were wrong, I have little faith that they won’t continue to doubt the science on future subjects.
J.P.:For the past 2 ½ decades you’ve been a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, and you were elected “warlord” for a year. What in fuck’s name does that mean?
B.P.: Well to be clear, I was elected warlord of my house (called Anglesey). I was the executive officer for a group of about 70 people who participate in an organization with over 60,000 participants. The warlord in our house is pretty similar to, say, the president of a motorcycle club. You organize meetings, facilitate polls for decision making, appoint commanders for the battles, etc. We often joke that the most important job of the warlord is to wake everyone up in time to make it to the battles. I haven’t been warlord for a few years, but one often gets the job by being active, responsible, and most importantly, because its “your turn.” There are a lot of houses where people want to be in charge. In Anglesey, we typically pray that someone else will want to be in charge, and then do a good job while they are.
And now you might be wondering, “What’s a house?” Think of a house like a sports team. Our battles are often consisted of several houses on each side. It would be like if you had to put together are 500 person football team out of a collection of NFL teams. And then each team would likely work on its own. “Okay, the Rams will take the left side of the field, the Eagles will be on your flank, and the Jets will be in the middle. I don’t care what the Cowboys do. They suck!”
J.P.:In your early 30s you taught yourself to play the drums. You then started a thrash metal band that played 20 or so gigs per year for three years. Um … what? How does that even happen? And why’d you stop?
B.P.: I played the trombone in college and dabbled with other instruments. I literally decided one day that I was going to buy a drum set and teach myself how to play. I also started a band, but because I was so bad, I needed other people on my level, so I pulled together a couple of friends who were also new to their instruments. We sucked. Like really sucked! But we got better. Eventually we started playing gigs, and then we met other musicians at these gigs, and then bands would break up and new bands would form. All in all I played in three bands over about a decade. I still play on my own, but being in a band is a lot of work for not a lot of money. The constant stress trying to keep 4-5 people together and on top of things gets old. If one person can’t make it, the band doesn’t play. Its not a very forgiving hobby.
J.P.:What are the misconceptions people have of reenactment fighting? And how did the film “Role Models” impact that? If at all?
B.P.: First of all, I LOVE Role Models! But Role Models is LARPing, not reenacting! LARP stands for Live Action Role Play, and is essentially Dungeons in Dragons that you walk around and act out. So where reenactment fighting is an athletic competition, and recreation fighting is like a choreographed play, LARPing is like a character driven game. In terms of the perceptions, the only thing I can say is that I lot of people think I do that, and I have to say, “No, I don’t do that. Not at all. Okay, its sort of like that, but completely different. No, really. The differences are significant. Fine, whatever… its a LARP (but it’s not!).”
J.P.:Here’s a weird one—we’re both former University of Delaware track and cross country runners. The big difference being, you’re a former state champ and I was a mediocre hack who ran the best 800 in Putnam County (home of four high schools). But this is what gets me—my year running at UD has stuck with me, and I don’t exactly know why. I mean, I sucked, I was out of my depth, it only lasted one year. But … I dunno. It matters. Does it to you? And … why?
B.P.: I’d often thought that if I was ever in a room full of high school runners getting all conference honors, I’d tell them two things; 1) You’re not all that. There’s people out there way better than you in a sport that no one cares about. 2) Take pride in the fact that you are orders of magnitude faster than 99 percent of the population.
I once looked at a trophy I had that was probably the representation of my highest achievement as a runner (something I got my senior year in college) and I did the math. If I traded all of the hours I spent training and, instead, worked a minimum wage job, what would this be worth, and would I be willing to trade it? The answer was about $30K, and the second answer was, “No, I wouldn’t trade it.” Like the pride one might take in building a deck off the back of their house, I take a lot of pride in having been a collegiate runner.
J.P.:You were an insanely fast runner, you did an Ironman, etc … etc. And now, mid-40s, you don’t run much. How does that impact you? Make you feel? To have been so fucking great at something, then sorta lose that to age? (Because I wasn’t nearly your equal, and it crushes me).
B.P.: Well, considering you wrote books on Brett Favre , Walter Payton, and the L.A. Lakers, lets just say I feel honored that you’d say that about a guy who just missed making all conference in an average DI school. It definitely bums me out a bit, but then its comforting to know that virtually everyone our age goes through the same process. There’s certain things we just can’t do anymore, so I try to focus on the things that I can do and take pride in that. I wouldn’t mind having my 20 something year old body back, but not if I have to give up my 40 something life experiences.
I’m also preparing to deal with this with my fighting hobby. We’re fortunate enough that skills and experience can make up for a lack of youthful fitness such that one can still fight at a pretty high level up to about 50, but like with anything, there comes a time when you can’t do it at a level that satisfies you anymore. At 46 I’m at about the top of my game, but I can feel myself slipping.
J.P.:Serious question—are we fucked? Trump, climate change, greed, etc? Are we just screwed and our kids more screwed? Or do you see any silver lining?
• Greatest running moment of your life?: Winning counties as a junior underdog. Second would be winning the Sprint Medley Relay at the Dover Relays. I enjoyed feeling like part of the sprint crew for one race.
• Right now, who wins in a one-mile race between you and Cam Newton?: In all seriousness, as slow as I’ve gotten, I would destroy Cam Newton. The guy’s 245 pounds! And explosive power and endurance running mix like oil and water. The last race I ran was a 5K in 21:30. Not fast enough to even make a high school varsity roster, but I enjoyed the fact that I was the second fastest runner at over 190lbs in the race (the fastest being my 25 year old cousin, who was also a D1 runner).
• Five reasons one should make Newark, Del. His/her next vacation destination: 1) The sandwiches; 2) Beautiful UofD campus; 3) Go for a stroll in the White Clay Creek Preserve; 4) Days of Knights gaming store on Main Street; 5) The sandwiches. Malin’s Deli makes the best Italian sub I’ve ever tasted, and I am a hug sandwich snob!
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? What do you recall?: Nope. I put on my ear buds and listen to Dark Side of the Moon every time I fly. I always pass out during On The Run and wake up during Eclipse.
• Celine Dion calls. She wants you to be her private reenactment fighting. She’ll pay you $10 million for six months, but you have to move to Las Vegas, legally change your name to Owl The Fuck Stick III and—for that time period—have a mouse trap attached to your left nipple. You in?: Absolutely! By the way, my house actually has a joke. When you start fighting, you need to pick a reenactment name (like Angus, Johan, Mangnus, etc.). If you don’t, we’ll pick one for you. The name we threaten them with is always “Fuck Stick.”
Ironically, my reenactment name is Barry. I got grandfathered in years ago, though I do have several nicknames that are less than flattering.
• One question you would ask Purvis Short were he here right now?: Magic or Bird?
• What’s the movie you absolutely hate?:Independence Day. Worst payoff to hype ratio, ever. Plus the kid sitting next to me kept sucking on his fingernails during the movie. Always left a bad taste in my mouth.
• About a decade ago Delaware ended its men’s running programs. Are you still bitter?: Yep. Very!
• What do your shoes smell like after a long run?: Axe Body Spray, ‘cause I’m a stud!
Hannah (left) and Kirsten try a Philly cheese steak at the Harbor House.
So over the last 3 1/2 days our family hosted two 17-year-old women visiting America with their South African water polo team.
The squad started its 2 1/2-week adventure in San Francisco, then drove down to SoCal for a series of games, practices, tourist activities. The 13 players were housed with different families, and we were blessed to land Hannah and Kirsten. Two young women whose presence—and I say this sans exaggeration—it turns out we genuinely needed.
They were here as athletes. But, really, they were here to look for America. To see and taste and buy and feel and smell. On their first night, all they wanted to eat (more than anything in the world) was Taco Bell, a franchise that apparently doesn’t exist in South Africa. So we pulled up to the drive-thru, and what followed (mediocre Grade-D Mexican to you and I) was bliss. They loved it. Fucking loooooooved it. Gorged down their heated-over burritos and dime-a-dozen tacos as if it were the finest of cuisines. The next night was even better. I took them to our favorite diner, the Harbor House, where they split orders of chicken and biscuits and gravy and a Philly cheese steak. Hannah and Kirsten were a bit torn on the poultry portion—the gravy is white and thick and something of an acquired taste. But the Philly steak. Whoa. Jesus Christ. At one point Hannah said, sans any apparent exaggeration, “This is the greatest moment of my life.”
Kirsten nodded. Again, without exaggeration.
Their entire stay was an electrifying reminder of how damn lucky we are. Yesterday the wife ferried them to Irvine for soup dumplings, then this quirky/fabulous fish ice cream. Hannah told me it was the most delicious dessert she’d ever had (which isn’t surprising considering it’s one of the most delicious desserts I’ve ever had, too). They also went shopping—to an enormous Goodwill thrift store. And, once again, the results were breathtaking. Hannah and Kirsten returned home with shirts, shorts, sweatshirts. They couldn’t believe the prices, the scope. They loved the dig.
This morning I took them to 7-Eleven (“So this Slurpee, is it like an iced drink?”), Costco (“Does anyone eat that much mayonnaise?”) and 5 Below, from which they (and several of the other visitors who tagged along) emerged with a Grand Canyon-level supply of candy. I watched them walk the aisles, mesmerized by their inquisitiveness. Is all this available? Is it really available?
In case this sounds purely materialistic, it wasn’t. Nope. Truly, throughout their stay Hannah and Kirsten’s eyes were as wide as Oreo cookies. They were captivated; a youthful wonder that—at age 47—now only flickers through my mind. By the drive along the Pacific Coast Highway. By the scent of fresh dumplings. By this idea (unspoken but still real) that in the United States of America, anything remains possible and dreams can become reality.
As we suffer through the most divided populace of my lifetime, with a huckster president dead set on trying to steal Independence Day from America and make it about himself, I needed Hannah and Kirsten to remind me that—even in the darkest times—our country retains its spark.
In case you missed this earlier today Donald Trump, Jr.—a slice of stale crumble cake who has accomplished, quite literally, nothing on his own—re-Tweeted a racist Tweet about Kamala Harris by some far-right troll named Ali.
Here’s the Tweet in question …
Because he is a pussy coward with an IQ of 17 and—I repeat—zero accomplishments (besides shooting an elephant or lion or something), Junior has found acceptance and purpose in his new incarnation as an online troll. Truly, it’s the one thing he does. I mean, his father doesn’t involve him in policy. His father hasn’t given him an actual position. Every dime he’s ever made has been off of daddy’s lifetime of cons. So you’ve gotta think, at age 41, Bitch Boy is giddy over having 3.65 million followers take delight in his owning of the libs (Yeah, big boy! You own those libs!).
That’s why, I imagine, he re-tweeted Ali Alexander, topped with: ““Is this true? Wow.”
Then, of course, people caught on. And Dog Shit Magoo—as racist as he is stupid; as egotistical as he is hairy—deleted the Tweet, as cowards are prone to do.
But here’s what sorta gets me: Once upon a time, a president was actually judged by his family’s misdeeds. Back in the late 1970s Jimmy Carter’s brother, Billy Carter, was a national embarrassment. So, for that matter, was Bill Clinton’s sibling, Roger. And those guys were merely buffoons.
Donald, Jr., though, is more than that. He’s a reflection of his father’s propensity to lie, to sling shit, to embarrass this nation.
As we speak I’m sitting inside a Toyota dealership, waiting for my car to be serviced. I’ve been here for about 2 1/2 hours, and I’m reminded that no place in the world is less interesting.
As we speak, I’m listening to two employees chat. They work in sales. The one guy is about to attend his 20th high school reunion this weekend. He’s in a band that plays every week at a local bar. He wanted to make music a career, but … you know. Life. Responsibilities. He got laid off from his last gig, but now he’s here. And his voice suggests, “It’s fine. It’s perfectly … fine.”
That’s what all the voices here suggest. It’s fine. Perfectly fine. There’s a coffee dispenser. The coffee is fine. There’s music playing—a ton of Chicago, Roxette, Celine. It’s fine. Perfectly fine. It’s very clean and specific. Tile floors that are beige and gray. Walls that are off white. There’s nary a scent to detect—good or bad.
Life passes here at a snail’s pace. It seems like a spot where dreams come to die. You were in a band, but you needed a side gig. So you started doing 15 hours per week at the dealership. You got married. Upped the hours to 30. Wife is pregnant. Forty. The years passed. It’s been five. No six. Actually, seven. You know everything about the new line of cars. Yes, the backup camera is standard. We can throw in new mats. No, it doesn’t come in electric blue.
I’ve been watching all the employees. They walk past. They do that grin-not grin to one another. Happy to see you, but not too happy.
Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.