Did anyone else notice that Feedly was down for a couple days last week?
I was really distressed by this. You see, as much as I love when people click “follow” (hint hint to the right) here on Gun In Act One, I don’t like to get blog posts from others in my inbox. As you’ll learn in a minute, that place is already sort of clogged up.
Anyway, I like to read blogs through Feedly (RIP Google Reader), because I can click one place on my phone and they’re all there, waiting for me to flip through. I catch up while I’m eating breakfast and I usually finish reading with my phone in one hand and carrying a cup of coffee in the other, walking up the stairs to my office. (Note: this has the potential for catastrophe written all over it, but that’s not what this post is about. Well, not directly.)
So, with Feedly down, I suppose I could have clicked on all the blogs I read individually, but that seemed sort of a daunting task. Instead, I headed to the very bottom of my email inbox, where I knew that was an article that a friend had sent me to read. On May 10.
This is what happens to things in my inbox – sometimes they sit there until I’m ready to deal with them. Sometimes that takes an obscenely long amount of time.
The article was “The String Theory,” by David Foster Wallace, published in Esquire in 1996.
Some of you surely know exactly who DFW is. I didn’t until roughly May 9, 2011. DFW was a writer, most notably of Infinite Jest, who committed suicide in 2008. He wrote nonfiction and fiction pieces both, including this piece which I swear I’m getting to. He also grew up in central Illinois, in Champaign-Urbana, and was a competitive junior tennis player. My introduction to DFW was via my tennis buddies in CU – one of whom sent me the link to this article the day after we talked about it.
Since then, I’ve heard references to Infinite Jest now and again, usually in reference to how long it is – like, really long. Like, I found a whole website devoted to helping people buck up and read this book over the course of a summer.
For this reason, I just wasn’t sure about diving into “The String Theory.” Would I enjoy it? Would I get it? Why should I spend my time on this article when I could be looking up cannoli recipes or buying shoes on the internet?
So, I just didn’t do it, until the great Feedly shutdown of 2014.
Finally, last week, I clicked. I started reading. And honestly, I read this slowly throughout the day – I’d read a section, do some work, come back and read a bit more when I needed to stop staring at Excel, back to work, back to reading. It’s not an unreasonably long piece, but I found it best digested in small bites.
Clearly I am in no place to tell you that you must go read this article right now, considering that it took me 3 years and all day to read. But, you should at least consider reading it – especially if you have a passing interest in tennis, or in athletics at all, or in life and reality and beautifully constructed sentences. In other words, you really should go read this. (For further incentive, there is a movie in the works with Jason Segel as DFW, so you should probably get in on this now so you can be informed when everyone starts talking about him.)
So, “The String Theory.” This is a non-fiction piece, an in-depth journalistic account of one man’s performance at a 1995 professional tennis tournament in the qualifying round. Michael T. Joyce was an American player, then ranked #79 in the world, vying for a spot in the Canadian Open.
DFW writes about the match – who’s playing, who is in the stands, what the ball sounds like, and what is on the line for both players. He writes about what has led up to the match – the mathematics and the politics and of earning a spot in pro tournaments, as well as the evolution of the sport, and how it came to be that the guys he is watching are playing the way they’re playing. He talks about what it means to be world-class:
“Watching Hlasek practice is probably the first time it really strikes me how good these professionals are, because even just fucking around Hlasek is the most impressive tennis player I’ve ever seen.”
and what it takes to get to the top:
“Somebody playing the qualies in Montreal is an undeniably world-class tennis player, but he’s not quite at the level where the serious TV and money are. In the main draw of the du Maurier Omnium Ltée, a first-round loser will earn $5,400, and a second-round loser $10,300. In the Montreal qualies, a player will receive $560 for losing in the second round and an even $0.00 for losing in the first. This might not be so bad if a lot of the entrants for the qualies hadn’t flown thousands of miles to get here. Plus, there’s the matter of supporting themselves in Montreal. The tournament pays the hotel and meal expenses of players in the main draw but not of those in the qualies. The seven survivors of the qualies, however, will get their hotel expenses retroactively picked up by the tournament. So there’s rather a lot at stake — some of the players in the qualies are literally playing for their supper or for the money to make airfare home or to the site of the next qualie.”
Though he also notes the presence of a lot of hot girlfriends:
Footnote: “Most of the girlfriends have something indefinable about them that suggests extremely wealthy parents whom the girls are pissing off by hooking up with an obscure professional tennis player.”
And then – boom – he calls us out for our complicity as spectators:
“Americans revere athletic excellence, competitive success, and it’s more than lip service we pay; we vote with our wallets. We’ll pay large sums to watch a truly great athlete; we’ll reward him with celebrity and adulation and will even go so far as to buy products and services he endorses.
But it’s better for us not to know the kinds of sacrifices the professional-grade athlete has made to get so very good at one particular thing. Oh, we’ll invoke lush clichés about the lonely heroism of Olympic athletes, the pain and analgesia of football, the early rising and hours of practice and restricted diets, the preflight celibacy, et cetera. But the actual facts of the sacrifices repel us when we see them: basketball geniuses who cannot read, sprinters who dope themselves, defensive tackles who shoot up with bovine hormones until they collapse or explode. We prefer not to consider closely the shockingly vapid and primitive comments uttered by athletes in postcontest interviews or to consider what impoverishments in one’s mental life would allow people actually to think the way great athletes seem to think. Note the way “up close and personal” profiles of professional athletes strain so hard to find evidence of a rounded human life — outside interests and activities, values beyond the sport. We ignore what’s obvious, that most of this straining is farce. It’s farce because the realities of top-level athletics today require an early and total commitment to one area of excellence.”
At the same time, he closes with more details on Michael Joyce, who is the main focus throughout, emphasizing what Joyce wants and what he’s willing to do to get there:
“He wants to be the best, to have his name known, to hold professional trophies over his head as he patiently turns in all four directions for the media. He wants this and will pay to have it — to pursue it, let it define him — and will pay up with the regretless cheer of a man for whom issues of choice became irrelevant a long time ago. Already, for Joyce, at twenty-two, it’s too late for anything else; he’s invested too much, is in too deep. I think he’s both lucky and unlucky. He will say he is happy and mean it. Wish him well.”
And so, he’s written both this commentary on professional sports and culture and expectations and what’s behind all those stories of greatness – and a really insightful look at one young athlete’s dreams and commitment.
It’s worth reading – and don’t skip the footnotes.
[Spoiler alert: Michael Joyce reached his highest world ranking of #64 in April 1996, just nine months after DFW watched him in Canada and wrote this piece.]
It might take another few years, but I’m far less intimidated by Infinte Jest after making it through this article.