10 min read

At the bottom of the basement stairs

At the bottom of the basement stairs
A photo from Mt. Baker Ski Area last weekend. This has nothing to do with this week’s issue. I just liked the photo and wanted to share it.

Lessons from a temper tantrum thrown by a nine year-old.

In my childhood home, one room in the basement was partially finished. Down the creaky stairs to the left, my parents had a contractor put in some questionable faux-wood paneling walls, a thin carpet that didn’t age well, and drop ceiling with office-space recessed lighting.

For half my life, nothing much happened in this room. It was the place where I dashed to retrieve sleeping bags when my friends visited. We’d toss them on backwards, stand up in the living room, and grapple with each other blindly, hoping we wouldn’t throw each other into anything of value, but not really caring if we did. (This was called “Slug Wrestling”. We definitely broke stuff. Parents were not fans)

As a teenager, this third of the basement became my domain. As I yearned for a more private place to do whatever teenagers do, the room expanded. Dad’s first attempt at an office desk (far from his finest), an ugly thing with laminate white desktops and darkly stained wood edges filled a far corner. And as the family retired the computers in the first floor office, I’d inherit them and lug them downstairs. They were joined over time by a few different boom boxes, an electric guitar and amp, a failing foam green futon and small television, and eventually one or two homemade bongs. (Shortly before the PVC piping with water-attachments got tucked away in a corner, I also hung a blue and black sarong-as-tapestry over the doorway for “added privacy”.)

But long before that finished room in the basement became a place where my friends and I thought we could smoke weed without getting caught (Dad didn’t care; he was high too), it was the place where I instinctually ran to throw my first premeditated temper tantrum. I was nine years-old.

For two years, my parents had been bending over backwards to get me to play the piano. We had a serviceable, frequently tuned standup instrument in our living room, and once a week my mom (usually) would drag me kicking and screaming to a lesson. I hated practicing, maybe because I’d started with the Suzuki Method and easily picked out my first few pieces by ear. I thought I’d be able to coast through everything.

But my assignments got harder and the car rides got longer when my teacher moved to a house in Amherst. Even as I refused to practice, Mom would leave work early to pick me up, drive me 30 minutes across the Coolidge Bridge, and then sit in traffic with me on the way home with All Things Considered On loud enough so neither of us had to talk about why I hadn’t practiced that week.

It’s telling that the details from my actual lesson are fuzzy. I think I recall the seeds of shame sprouting as I sat next to my teacher on the bench, unable to explain my lack of progress—but I can’t be sure. This gap in memory is stark, compared to the clear sense of total frustration I felt at home when I sat down to play and couldn’t sound out a piece easily. It’s the earliest personal vicious cycle I can remember: Don’t practice, feel shame about failing, use shame to excuse more lack of practice, wait for nuclear fallout with my parents.

But back to that basement room.

Nine year-old me slammed the door at the top of the stairs as hard as I could and stomped heavily down the dozen-plus steps. Then I took up a strong a stance as I could muster in the finished room’s threshold, facing away from the stairway and screaming until my face was red hot and wet from tears. I have a notion that some at least for a little while, one of my parents was hollering back.

And then the memory stops abruptly, like a dream cut short by sunrise. I didn’t have to go to piano anymore. I stopped doing anything at the keys, other than speeding through the first 6-8 measures of The Entertainer and refusing to pick up my sheet music to plunk my way through the rest. Eventually, I forgot how to play it all together.

Today, I can pick out melodies my right hand if I need to sing something, but it’s a slog.

For the better part of the last few months, I haven’t been writing. At first, it felt good to take a break. A year after starting this newsletter, I may have finished the first part of my processing.

But at some point my break turned quickly into an act of avoidance and procrastination. Sitting down to tap out an issue became daunting, when just a few months earlier it felt as if the words were streaming out of me. I told myself an undercooked story about how my writing muscle had atrophied and that it’d take too much work to revive it.

Of course that story was a load of bullshit. But there was a kernel of truth buried underneath the lie.

For much of my life, I’ve surfed a wave of intuition through challenges, starting with the piano. I wanted to apply that to writing, too. Let the words fly and never look back.

But in 2014, when I first started getting frequently edited, I started getting a taste of what I could really do if I practiced. Even constructive criticism was hard to bear at first (I’d hand-waved nearly all of it in college). I guess my drive to write better pieces for Ultiworld was so strong it overcame my instinct to quit when the going got tough. I relished the challenge of hitting a deadline. People wanted to read what I was writing. I was devouring all kinds of journalism pros, especially everyone at Grantland, and aping their styles. I wanted to be better and I was spending the time to do it, suffering the failures as best I could while not bending to the will of my inner critic.

At least for me, any endeavor that requires consistent application of mind and body contains within it a fear that letting up is a death sentence. Even on runs, I used to route myself away from intersections, believing that if I slowed too much, I’d have to walk home.

In the world of online writing, longtime pros borrowed the running imagery to describe a phenomenon they called a content treadmill: once you’ve stood up a site that’s dependent on pushing out fresh content multiple times a day to a click-hungry audience to drive traffic-based revenue, a day without fresh network effects is money lost. With the internet’s collective attention span so mind-bindingly short, any pause in the flow of new clickable stuff gets paired with a dread that the audience will move elsewhere.

So too does that insidious dread accompany taking a break from a regular practice—if I stop, it’ll be ten steps backward and then it won’t be worth it to start typing again.

I feel lucky now to have enough experience to know that the absence of production is not a harbinger of the end for my writing talent. Indeed, as I approach the end of this issue, I feel comfortable and glad to be pack in the saddle, peddling away.

And yet, I’m still preoccupied by how long it took me to learn the lesson of patience and practice. What would’ve happened if I’d screamed myself exhausted the bottom of the stairs, but then felt some remorse and slowly gone back to the piano the next day? It took until high school for me to find another musical endeavor worth practicing, and until my early 20s to finally find a way into writing that I could stay after.

Recently, a colleague made a routine out of asking me tough questions that pushed me to trust myself and take risks. As I struggled to answer her first question a few months ago, I realized how uncomfortable I felt; even 22 years after that tantrum, I could feel myself standing at the bottom of the stairs, pleading at the top of my lungs to not have to answer the question. And then, a calm self-awareness washed over me. I answered the question, set a goal for myself, and I walked back up the stairs to put my mind to the task at hand.


This week’s newsletter is dedicated to TrueHoop’s Henry Abbott. Sometimes it takes a tremendous piece of writing from someone else to motivate me to finishing my own work.

While I Was Out

It’s been a little while since we’ve done this, so forgive any ice-cold recommendations. Anyways, here’s a heap of stuff I liked from the last few months.


High Fidelity – As a teenager, I loved hanging out with John Cusack, Jack Black, and Todd Luiso in that record store. Now, Zoë Kravitz takes a turn at Nick Hornby’s lead character Rob Brooks in this show on Hulu. With 10 half-hour episodes instead of one feature-lengthy film, we get to spend a lot more time watching Rob struggle to avoid looking inward. Showrunners Veronica West and Sarah Kucserk are a great pair. Da’Vine Joy Randolph steals every seen as Cherise, the updated version of Jack Black’s character from the movie.

McMillions – HBO’s new Sunday-night docuseries might be the first good-bad docuseries I’ve ever watched. The reenactments are over the top. Almost all of the interviewees seem a little too eager to give up information that should be sealed in a courthouse somewhere.

And yet, it’s a true story about how the McDonald’s Monopoly game, which I remember begging my parents to let me play with a supersize fries, was rigged. Like organized crime, rigged. Come for the intrigue, stay for the FBI’s Special Agent Doug Matthews who is, despite all my instincts telling me otherwise, a real live human being and not a ham with arms and legs.

At The Movies

Portrait Of A Lady On Fire – Can’t recommend this film enough. A stunning, minimalist, beautiful love story. Great performances, impeccable camerawork, ghostly-accurate sound and music. This movie came out last year, but needed some time to work into wider release.

Parasite – Bong Joon Ho’s latest film, which ran the table at the Academy Awards, is back in theaters. See it if you haven’t.

Her Smell – Smaller film featuring Elizabeth Moss as a punk star spiraling out of control. Shot by the director of photography behind the Safdie Brothers’ Good Time, so quite wild and complicated. This is a tough watch, but Moss is terrific. Don’t watch unless you feel ready to witness someone completely lose the battle to substance abuse is something.

Uncut Gems – Speaking of tough watches, this movie is so effectively nerve-wracking I needed about two hours to come down from it. Sandler won Best Male Lead at the Film Independent Spirt Awards for his performance, which ain’t an Oscar, but I never really thought the Academy would go for this movie.

Sage – Special shoutout to friend Jesse Goldstein, who’s editing work is on display in this short documentary about Erricka Bridgeford and her work with Baltimore Ceasefire. (Related: Alec MacGillis’s masterwork on Baltimore Ceasfire for ProPublica and the New York Times.)

I mention it, because if you’re in NYC, Sage is screening at the Brooklyn Museum’s Feminist Film Night later this month. The film is directed by another fellow Goucher classmate, Gabe Dinsmoor.

In The News

Exceptions, Ruthless by TrueHoop’s Henry Abbott. The best eulogy for the late David Stern, full stop.

Bam Adebayo Is The Fiercest, Best NBA Player You Don’t Know by Zach Lowe. I’ve been a fan of Zach’s ever since Grantland and this is his best profile, ever. Stunning quotes in this one.

The Ghost Hunter by Leah Sottile for the Atavist Magazine. A misty, spiritual investigation of a legendary Manila galleon that shipwrecked on the Oregon Coast. Think real-life Goonies.

Survivor’s Guilt In The Mountains by Nick Paumgarten. If Nick writes it for the New Yorker, I read it. A troubling tale about the prevalence of death in the extreme mountain sports community, featuring a septuagenarian Jungian therapist who believes he can help climbers deal with their guilt.

How Margot Robbie Changed Her Hollywood Destiny by Anne Helen Petersen. Another great culture piece from AHP. And sure, see Birds of Prey, but only if you like the Blade movies and/or Deadpool.

Dead And Spun: A Story In Three Meetings by Samer Kalaf. In exile, the former Deadspin editor continues to investigate and reveal the details of the once-vaunted sports blog’s demise. Read this if you’re at all curious about what it’s like to work in the world of journalism right now.

The Iowa Caucuses Are Going To Be A F*cking Nightmare by Lyz Lenz. Lenz actually saw the disaster-waiting-to-happen and wrote about it, before the caucuses. But the Iowa party organizers stuck with their now infamously doomed app anyways. Talk about the Sunk Cost fallacy.

In My Ears

Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere - Neil Young

Shoutout to Tad Wissel for the recommendation here. He put the titular track from this album (which is packed with great tracks) in the intro to the latest episode of his ultimate frisbee (kind of?) podcast Sin The Fields.

Love Is Everywhere – Pharoah Sanders

A multi-movement jazz piece from the 70s that I found hiding inside a FluxblogSurvey playlist. Fluxblog founder (and sole writer) Matthew Perpetua is a playlist savant.

Concrete – Poppy

Wow is this song weird and nuts. As if a Gen Z’er was listening to Deerhoof and said, “I could pack a few more genres into this.” Of course, it plays great in the car, I think.

In The Stacks

In The Woods by Tana French

On a recommendation (thanks Kelley!), I’m currently reading the first of French’s Dublin Murders series. I wanted another mystery to read, and what I got was a spec-fic novel in noir clothing. French’s prose is word-perfect.

Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe

Recently finished this excellent book with a small group of friends. Ever since Radden Keefe, a staff writer at the New Yorker, published Where The Bodies Are Buried, I’ve had my eye on this one.

Say Nothing is part true crime recounting of Jean McConville’s disappearance, part pocket history of The Troubles, mostly from the point of view of former members of the IRA. Most of the book’s revelations hinge on now-not-so-secret interviews of IRA veterans that were sealed in a vault at Boston College.

Dune by Frank Hebert

I finished my reread of Dune in January and damnit, this is still an all-timer work of science fiction. But everyone knows that, right?

Right. It’s on the list here because this is your first reminder that Denis Villenevue’s star-studded film is coming in November of this year. And I am very, very excited. People have tried and failed (quite publicly) to put Hebert’s world on screen, but Villeneuve may be bringing the steadiest hand to date to this effort.

As always, a reminder that Sunday On A Whim is a passion project. Please excuse the occasional half-baked sentence or silly typo.