Tuesday, 11 December 2012

The Best Place to Eat Right Now Is In... A) a hospital B) a car wash C) an arcade D) a ballpark E) all of the above

Michelin-worthy taco trucks. Locavore-Popsicle stands. Foie gras carts. Gourmet cuisine is popping up everywhere. But does the fennel-crusted Berkshire pork belly suffer when it's served near an emergency room? Brett Martin set off on a cross-country search for the most delicious food in the most unlikely places.

And so here we are, under the arc lights, under the Southern California stars, on a picture-perfect summer evening in America. The kids are arriving, headlights swinging slowly down La Brea, down Beverly. They're cruising, looking for parking, checking out the scene at the car wash and gas station on the corner.

I myself am driving a brand-new bright red Ford F-150 pickup truck. This feels important. If you've never been in one of these monsters, it's hard to describe how mighty and right it makes you feel. You understand why men who drive trucks drive like assholes: (a) There's a good chance that, despite mirrors the size of a normal human car's hubcaps, they simply don't see other vehicles. (b) In some larger, existential sense, all other vehicles have ceased to exist. Driving an F-150 makes you want to run over smaller, lesser cars. It makes you want to invade smaller, lesser countries.


Finding my way in Beijing was tougher than I'd ever imagined. But sharpening my skills at a local youth academy for ping-pong—a game at which I'd dominated friends back home for years—seemed like an opportunity not to suck. So what if it meant beating up on little kids at the school and old men in the park? This would be my key to assimilation. Nice plan—but then I stared down the pre-teen pong machines and got my first real taste of China's national pastime.

On my first day at Shichahai Sports School, the elite athletic academy in Beijing, Coach Chang introduces me to his ping-pong class. "We have a new American student," he says, peering out from behind the prescription sunglasses he wears indoors. As all eyes turn toward me, I feel a rush of nerves. It's like day one of kindergarten again, only this time I have chest hair. "He claims he's been playing for more than ten years," Chang goes on, "but from what I've seen, it looks more like ten days." The class erupts into high-pitched giggles.

We're lined up in one of the school's three basement ping-pong halls, a huge gymnasium with 27 tables, a Chinese flag hanging on the wall, and video cameras mounted everywhere. ("For security," says Coach Chang.) Whereas most students attend Shichahai after distinguishing themselves at smaller regional schools around the country, I just walked in the front door mid-semester and paid the exorbitant $25-a-class foreigners' rate. (Chinese students pay $1,500 to $5,000 a year for morning academic classes and twice-a-day ping-pong lessons, plus room and board.) I enrolled knowing I'd be one of the older students. I didn't realize it'd be by a factor of three. Flanking me are two dozen gangly 9-to-12-year-olds in bright jerseys, hiked-up shorts, and near-identical buzz cuts, yet I'm the one who looks foolish.

You could call it karma. I have a history of cruelty when it comes to ping-pong. As a kid, I'd trounce my little brothers so badly over our family's table that they'd cry. When I lived in a group house in D.C. after college, I'd plant myself at an end of the table my girlfriend bought me for my birthday and pick off challengers one by one. It wasn't their fault. I simply operated at a higher level, unleashing slices and cross-slams and sidespins unfit for social settings. I took it seriously too, chatting away while ahead but getting real quiet and whispering to myself when the score tightened. Eventually, friends stopped accepting my invitations, roommates made excuses. Most people know a ping-pong jerk, and all my life, that was me.

When I left the comfort of D.C. for a job in Beijing last summer, ping-pong seemed like a natural in. The sport was everywhere, and I figured the history of "ping-pong diplomacy" that led to the re-opening of relations with the U.S. in 1971 might lend my presence some much-needed gravitas. It also seemed like a rare opportunity to not suck. Moving to a new country, especially China, is an exercise in crippling humiliation. Hailing a cab, asking directions, ordering food, even attempting to digest that food (with occasional ugly results)—every activity reinforces one's ridiculousness. Even friendly encouragement—Chinese people tend to lavish praise on foreigners for their Mandarin, no matter how shoddy—can feel infantilizing. I especially feared the challenge of making and keeping Chinese friends. Ping-pong would be my salvation. It would not only help me meet Chinese people, it would earn me their respect. Whereas in the U.S. ping-pong enjoys about the same esteem as dodgeball, China puts its champions on prime time. I'd prove I was more than just a big-nosed idiot foreigner—I was a big-nosed idiot foreigner who could excel at a sport they revere. If ping-pong could make Chinese people like Nixon, I just might have a shot, too.

My first opponent at Shichahai, a smiley kid named Wang, stands eye-level with my chest. On the orders of Coach Chang, we edge up to a nearby table and start rallying. Though rallying couldn't be less accurate. Wang serves. The ball bounces over the net and hits my side of the table. I strike it with my paddle, it springs over the net, and does not hit his side of the table. It doesn't hit anything. This must happen 25 times in a row. The physics are all wrong. It's like instead of a paddle I'm holding a pancake.

I get ushered off to a side table, where an older coach named Zhang is making like a human ball machine. Standing at one end of the table, he draws balls from a bucket and sends them skimming over the net. Each serve travels at the same speed, same angle, same rhythm. A student, hunched over like a wrestler, returns them in perfect metronomic time. All at once ping-pong looks like a sport.

When it's my turn to rotate in, Zhang begins by correcting my grip. I use the traditional "handshake" hold, same as most Americans, and the paddle hangs loosely in my fingers. I expected to learn the "pen" grip used by many Chinese players (and Americans trying to look cool). No need to switch, Zhang explains, but he moves my thumb in a way that keeps the racket locked against my hand, and bends my wrist sideways to make the paddle an extension of my arm's line. My forehand stroke now looks like a robot ninja salute.

Coach Zhang serves to me. Using my new stroke, I don't hit the ball so much as graze it. The ball topspins its way down, the table exerting its own gravitational pull. Zhang serves until the bowl is empty, and another student steps up to drill. "Good!" Zhang says in English, giving a thumbs up. I feel gleeful, if also condescended to by his big English "Good!" But mostly gleeful.

The floor is littered with hundreds of balls. Drenched in sweat, I get down on my hands and knees to collect them, and as I crawl an errant shot smacks me in the face. I stand up and prepare for the next lesson. Coach Zhang says we're doing forehands again. "What about backhand?" I say. "Maybe after another eight or ten classes," he says. Some of these students have been training since they learned to walk. "No rush."

As the weeks progress, my classroom humiliations don't disappear so much as take on subtler forms. I arrive one morning during my second month to find two kids facing the wall. I ask Coach Zhang why. "They were being stupid," he says. After several minutes, they receive the second part of their punishment: They are forced to drill with me.

Another day, I come to class with a cold. When I line up with the rest of the students, Coach Chang tells me to stand on the other side of the room, lest I contaminate China's future. Most of the students at Shichahai go on to regular high schools and universities, many of which recruit for ping-pong, but the best ones graduate to Beijing's youth squad, the Beijing team, and, in a handful of cases, the national team. It's entirely possible that I've been getting wrecked by a future Olympian.

That thought consoles me when, playing a match against a little guy with a massively out-of-proportion head, I can't seem to score. The old moon gravity is back, and every ball I strike flies over the far edge. Just one point, I tell myself, one point and I'll be happy. I'm losing 10-0, when the kid deliberately serves the ball off the table: A charity point, another student later explains, to give me face. I lose 11-1.

Still, I feel my game improving. Intention and results start to align, at least during drills. Whatever muscles are engaged by bending down for hours while swinging your arm back and forth are getting stronger. But bad habits linger. I plant my feet. I don't twist. I flick my wrist lazily instead of building spin into my stroke. It feels like I need to re-learn everything daily. Try as I might, I'm not a child. "My son is easier to teach than you because he is a blank slate," Coach Chang says, referring to his 6-year-old. "He can't do much, but everything he does, he does right. You try hard, but you do everything wrong." To prove it, he parks his son in front of a table and starts a cross-shot forehand drill. The kid might as well be playing patty cake; he doesn't miss.

Explanations of Chinese ping-pong dominance range from the pseudoscientific to the cultural to the systematic; while Europeans and Americans are big and strong, Asians are quick and nimble, I am frequently told by Chinese ping-pong enthusiasts. (Never mind Yao Ming or the 2012 Olympic gold medal-winning, world record-setting weightlifter Zhou Lulu.) The Chinese also think strategically, says Chang—something he says I would understand if I read classics like The Water Margin or The Art of War. Then there's China's vast ping-pong infrastructure, a network of local, city, provincial, and national training centers that teach players using the same methods and promise their best players a life of wealth (some make close to $1 million a year) and fame (top players like Ma Long and Ma Lin are household names). Since 1988, when table tennis became an Olympic sport, Chinese players have won 24 out of 28 possible gold medals.

But China's greatest strength may be its sheer numbers. Teodor Gheorghe, the coach of the U.S. women's Olympic ping-pong team, remembers visiting China with the Romanian team in 1970 and hearing a Guangdong official lament that the province had "only 5 million players." "You can imagine how we were shocked," Gheorghe says. Unlike soccer or basketball, ping-pong doesn't require much space or equipment—just a table, two paddles, and a net (or lacking that, a row of bricks). Just as no one can throw a baseball quite like an American boy or dribble a soccer ball like a Brazilian kid, your average Chinese child grows up knowing his or her way around the table.

The Shichahai students and I get along, but in the same way they might get along with an intelligent dog. When they demand to see a one-dollar bill, I thumb one from my wallet and point out George Washington. "He's America's Mao," one of them informs the others. They ask me about the U.S.—mostly the prices of things, like iPhones—and I tell them as much as I can before they stop listening and start curiously stroking my arm hair.

One day, I rally with a tiny kid who looks like he's about to fall asleep. He serves lazily, his body limp and his eyes almost fully closed. I start mimicking him, and he laughs. Bingo. I finally have a plan.
We play matches at the end of class in which students rotate from table to table, each facing everyone else at least once. My first opponent is a kid with a bruise on his face where a classmate kicked him the other day. (They're cool now, he assures me.) I serve the first ball normally. On my second serve, though, I suddenly pull in my chin, puff out my cheeks, and bug out my eyes. He panics and hits it into the net. Next serve, I cross my eyes. His return sails off the end of the table. My strategy is working. I keep it up, flashing a goofy yokel overbite, rolling my eyes back into my head, and making farting sounds as I serve. He still wins the game, but I've discovered my secret weapon—my crane kick. The next game, I'm up against a stringy kid who can't stop laughing when I pretend to fall asleep while serving. It's the first match I've won.

This should probably count as cheating, but it feels like a breakthrough. I've turned my disadvantage—my ridiculousness in these kids' eyes—into an edge. I've out-10-year-olded the 10-year-olds. Later, when discussing my progress with Coach Zhang, I guiltily confess my clown strategy. To my surprise, he smiles and nods with approval. "That's wisdom," he says.


After several weeks of classes, I'm ready to face my first real-world test: Beijing's pensioners. It's a clear spring day—the sun actually looks like the sun, not a dull yellow moon—so I bike to a park on Houhai, a man-made lake in central Beijing, where I know I can find some pickup pong. The park is strewn with track-suited seniors engaged in a tableau of Chinese exercises. A slack-faced woman glumly rotates a giant yellow wheel, one of many pieces of public exercise equipment installed in the run-up to the Olympics. A man is draped across two railings doing full-torso sit-ups. Another in Coke-bottle glasses and a beanie pads around with his arms frozen in mid-air like he's wearing a pair of invisible water wings.

When I approach the ping-pong tables—two marble slabs resting on blue steel bars—heads turn. I'm not the first foreigner this crowd has seen, but I may be the first with his own racket case and balls. A man in a fake fur hat asks to see my paddle. He holds it by the face and taps the handle against his head, judging the quality of the wood by its sound. "How much did it cost?" he asks. Twenty-five yuan at a supermarket, I say. "The quality isn't good," he says. (A coach at Shichahai was not impressed: "Supermarket—banana, orange, apple," he said, in English. "Not ping pong.") The man in the fur hat shows me his racket. The padding on one side is fresh—he just replaced it himself—the other side is bare wood, with a deep indent where his knuckle has worn it down over three decades. "This one was three-and-a-half yuan," he says. Not only will I crush you, he implies, I will do it affordably.

A husky lady in a pink puffy vest is playing a gray-maned gentleman in orange socks and shiny black sneakers. She insists I take her place. The man, Mr. Jiao (paddle: 500 yuan), serves. He flips the ball into the air with his open-palmed free hand, the sphere nearly grazing the bare branches of the trees above us, and then clips it over the net with a stomp of his foot, perfectly timed to disguise the sound of the ball against the paddle, so I don't know whether he's hitting it with the racket's soft side or its hard side. Sometimes he gets fancy and tosses the serve from behind his back. His moves would seem more ridiculous if they didn't work so well.

Athletes always want to compare their sports to chess—fencing is chess with swords, boxing is chess with concussions. But to a greater extent than any game I know, ping-pong really is like chess, and the reason is spin. Every ball requires a split-second calculation, as the player identifies its spin and responds with the appropriate counter-spin. "In chess, you can predict the next three or four steps," Coach Zhang says. "In ping-pong, the possibilities are endless."

Mr. Jiao's spin jujitsu puts me on the defensive from the start, and he wins the first game. I get more aggressive, trying to fight spin with force, and, with the help of several strong gusts of wind, I win the second. The third is tied 10-10 and goes into extra points. He beats me with a shot that nicks the table, or, in Mandarin, a "scrape-side-ball." After weeks of getting destroyed by children, a close loss to an adult feels like a victory. We shake hands. "You don't speak very fluently," he says. I take the honesty as a compliment.
If there's one thing you learn playing American sports as a kid, it's that everyone gets a trophy. But after three months of ping-pong training, I still have nothing to show for my efforts except a wilted ego and a blister on my thumb. So when I hear there's a local tournament scheduled for early May, I sign up. The site is North Riverside Park, home to one of the city's swankier public ping-pong facilities (i.e. it has real nets). The tournament seems like the perfect chance to prove how far I've come. But first, I undertake a Rocky-style training montage.

The Shichahai classes have raised my game, but don't offer much individual attention. I need a mentor, I tell a ping-pong buddy I met at Houhai. He says he knows just the guy.

When I shake hands with Coach Deng at his ping-pong shop across town, he has just eaten, so we sit and talk—I bring a friend along to help translate—while he digests. He's bald and round and speaks with the rasp of a lifetime smoker, or perhaps just a lifetime Beijing resident. He's not a ping-pong player himself, he explains; he creates ping-pong players. "Any player I stand behind, he will win," he says, lighting a cigarette.

Between drags, he dispenses advice for the tournament. First, clothes: Wear a warm shirt for the morning, and a light shirt for the afternoon—if I make it that far. Food: "The night before, eat noodles," he says. "But only eat till you're 60 percent full." The morning of? "Noodles," he says, but this time only till I'm 50 percent full. (After hearing all about China's "Three Represents," "Four Modernizations," and five-year plans, I've gotten used to numerical specificity.) I should also be sure to bring a snack to the tournament, Coach Deng says, preferably two chocolate wafers. For lunch, I should eat noodles, followed by one more chocolate wafer in the afternoon.

I take this down, and we set off for a basement ping-pong club nearby. Inside, it looks like a fallout shelter. A long fluorescent lamp flickers above two tables. Posters of ping-pong greats hang on the walls. This, I tell myself, is where champions are made. We rally. He tests me with some tricky spin and notes my reactions, or lack thereof. Something feels off. I can't concentrate. It's like everything I learned, I've since unlearned. I can tell he's disappointed, and this makes me perform even worse.

After a while, we break and I ask him what he thinks. "Let's start with your strengths," he says. "Your strength is you enjoy yourself." I wait for more. "Your weaknesses," he goes on—and then proceeds to list every aspect of the game: My grip is wrong, my stroke is flimsy, I don't rotate my torso, my feet don't move. The last few months suddenly feel pointless. He gestures to one of his friends, who plays ping-pong like I imagine Bruce Lee would. "He is in the sky," Deng says. "You are on the ground."

I ask what this means for the tournament. "Eighty percent of the people there will be better than you," he says. "You can barely play." Getting to a level where I could compete, he said, would take three years of practice, two sessions a week.

He then inflicts what might be my worst humiliation yet. We play a game, and he lets me win. I don't actually win—he just deliberately loses points, knocking balls way off the table or into the net. I might score points here and there, is the implication, but only because he allows me to. "I wanted to encourage you," he says afterward, grinning. Whatever his intent, the effect is the opposite. After months of being treated like a moron, this—the suggestion that I would celebrate when I know he threw the game, an act that wouldn't fool a pre-schooler—is the final insult. We don't see each other again.


The day of the tournament, I get up at 6 a.m. and bike over to the park. An hour before the games begin, the fenced-in ping-pong area is already bustling, each table flanked by competitors warming up. I rally with a man named Su, who used to work in the railway industry. He asks where I'm from, and I tell him the U.S. "You have about 200 hundred years of history, right?" he says. "Right," I say, "a bit more." He seems unimpressed.

I draw a number to see who I face first. When I spot my opponent, I'm encouraged. Phenotype aside, he could be my grandfather. The refs call our number, and we start rallying. His shots are simple, unadorned—a positive sign. Finally it's time to start. The old man serves.

At least I think he's served. My paddle misses the ball completely. Suddenly it's my first day at Shichahai and I'm getting aced. The next shot caromes off my paddle into tomorrow. It takes me several points to understand what's going on. He's got some wacky sidespin I've never encountered, and I'm not sure how to return it. I try working out the geometry in my head—if it's spinning this way, then I have to move my paddle like... By the time I calibrate, he's applying different torque, and I fail to return that shot, too. I don't even think to make a farting noise.

I'd like to say this is where I discover a spiritual reserve deep inside me or bust out some secret move I've been practicing but haven't quite mastered, only to pull ahead in a blazing comeback of furious glory. Because if that's not what happens, why even tell the story? What I actually feel as the points slip away—sorry—is the weight of failure far heavier than any single game of ping-pong deserves. A year of fears and disappointments, from language flailings to job concerns to What am I even doing here? glom together in a stomach-pit of anxiety. Months of training have produced the same results as if I'd spent that time playing Wii Tennis—possibly worse.

At least it's over fast. I lose two games in a row, 11-4 and 11-6. My opponent, victorious, comes over to shake my hand. His name is Han. He's 66. He says he's glad to see young people playing, since most of them just waste hours with video games these days. I ask how playing now is different from when he was younger. "I'm a lot slower now," he says. I empathize.

While we're chatting, the lady in charge of the tournament hands me a blue jersey with the league's acronym: DSBHQYX. (It stands for desheng binhe qiuyou xiehui, or "Victory Riverside Ball Friends Society.") It's supposed to be for the winners, but she says I should wear it anyway because people will want to take photos with me. No matter that I may be the worst player to swing a paddle on this court in its three-year history, I still receive special treatment. I wear it anyway.


A few days after the tournament, I take Coach Chang out to dinner at a restaurant that serves Chinese and Western food. He brings his wife and son, who, he reminds me, could thump me at a table. He tells me about the 20-plus years he spent teaching ping-pong in Japan, and the way it opened up Japanese society to him—from professors to politicians to industry leaders. I tell him I'm not sure ping-pong has done the same for me in China. As much as I've played, I still feel as if I'm treated as a combination clown-mascot-business opportunity.

Then again, that's what I am. It seems like an American tendency to insist we're exceptional, but then travel abroad with limited cultural knowledge and language ability and expect to be treated the same as everyone else. This attitude also presumes that the greatest sign of respect from a Chinese person is for him to pretend you're Chinese, too. That idea might make sense in the U.S., where for many—including many Chinese—assimilation is the goal. You can become American. But radical acceptance doesn't exist in China, I found, and to expect it is to misunderstand the place.

I try and articulate all this to Coach Chang. He looks at me through his tinted lenses. "You're white," he says. "Sorry." When he first moved to Japan, he had trouble being accepted. But once he spoke Japanese fluently and had lived there for a few years, he was just like everyone else. That's not going to happen for me, he says. No matter what you do, your accomplishments are always the numerator over the dominator of your foreignness.

There's a phrase among expats in China: LBH, or "loser back home." It refers to someone who gets undue attention here, particularly from Chinese women, but in his native country has no friends. When it comes to ping-pong, I'm the opposite: I was a winner back home. I left home in order to lose. Any self-help guru will tell you losing is instructive: It teaches patience and grace. It puts victory in context. It inspires greater effort next time. And while patience and grace may not be the first words that come to mind when I look back on a year of regular linguistic mishaps, irregular bathroom runs, and being out-ponged by people half my height (including 6-year-olds and 60-year-olds), these small failures have reacquainted me with both. They've also shown that sometimes, when facing long odds, it's not just OK to give up, it's important to. As Coach Deng said when I asked him if I had a chance at becoming a ping-pong champion: "Next life."

A Reading Man's Guide to Dirty Books

Chicks may like to read about sex. But guys? You won't catch us hunkering down under the bedsheets with soft-core sensation of the year Fifty Shades of Grey.   We require, you know, pictures. Right?  Tom Bissell,  a connoisseur of the finest literary smut since before the age of consent, is here to tell you otherwise.

John Updike
Couples (1968)
No. 1
John Updike
Couples (1968)

When I was in the sixth grade, I got my hands on a hardcover copy of John Updike's Couples. A few adults in my orbit—teachers, parents, friends of parents—took note. For them, "John Updike" wasn't a name so much as a signifier of literary urbanity. So I'd sit there before class, in Catholic school, reading Couples, which is filled with scenes involving "fumbly dripping genitals," astonished that my teacher wasn't rushing over to pull the book from my hands and douse me with a fire extinguisher. No one, I realized with a thrill,has any idea what's actually in this thing.

Soon after I finished Couples, I read another Updike novel, Rabbit Is Rich (1981):"To stick your tongue in just as far as it would go while her pussy tickles your nose. No acne in that crotch. Heaven." Hang on. Crotches can have acne? Good to know! If I ever have children of my own, I'll be planting the dirtiest Updike novels I can find in all my home's high-traffic areas. The best way to encourage reading, especially in these digital times, is to remind young people how sexually diabolical good writing can be.
Nicholson Baker
The Fermata (1994)
No. 2
Nicholson Baker
The Fermata (1994)

Nicholson Baker's The Fermata is probably the most good-natured sexy novel of our time, despite its having one of the most potentially sinister and disturbing setups imaginable. Its narrator, Arno Strine, has been blessed with the ability to freeze time, producing what he calls "the Fold," through which he alone is free to move and loiter. (A fermata is, technically speaking, a pause in a piece of music.) In another writer's hands, this planet-stilling conceit might make for some nifty hunk of Inception-like sci-fi, but Baker uses it to explore the inner terrain of imagination, male desire, and loneliness, for what Arno likes to do while in the Fold is take women's clothes off, touch them a little, and masturbate.

It helps that Baker is among our greatest living prose stylists, able to describe a time-frozen woman's breast as a "hot heavy ostrich egg" and the female anus as "discrete, singular, clearly bounded, focused, in contrast to the bounteous plied gyno-confusion of the vadge." Baker is particularly good on ejaculation, coming up with so many ways to describe the grand event ("I released one-liners of sperm up her forearm"; "I would send forth four gray stripes of fatherhood") that he might well be the Picasso of come. The best passage in the book describes the difference between male and female urine discharge, the latter falling from between a woman's legs "confusedly, in a stegosaurian fan." There is more loving, observant detail in this passage than  E. L. James has managed in 1,600 pages.
Alan Hollinghurst
The Swimming-Pool Library (1988)
No. 3
Alan Hollinghurst
The Swimming-Pool Library (1988)

Alan Hollinghurst's The Swimming-Pool Library was once described by none other than Nicholson Baker as containing an "initially kind of disgusting level of homosexual sex"; yet Baker also ranked it high among the finest first novels he'd ever read. As a non-gay man, I don't find the level of homosexual sex contained in the book disgusting. If anything, I find it conceptually overwhelming. The Swimming-Pool Library is like a gelateria of erotic variability: interracial, intergenerational, rough, soft, quickies, hardies, scaries, get-the-fuck-off-me's—The Swimming-Pool Library goes everywhere, sexually speaking, provided no women dwell there.

Hollinghurst's story is primarily concerned with two men: William, who is pretty and young and brilliant, and Charles, who is old and rich and desperate. William and Charles need each other emotionally and intellectually but not sexually. They meet while seeking out anonymous sex at a public restroom in London, during which Charles has heart trouble and William saves him. Hollinghurst is a tender and lyrically fussy writer, which means his sex scenes can be astonishingly sad and mournful. When one of William's lovers gets undressed, Hollinghurst takes the time to notice "the red blotch of an insect bite in the tender, creased skin at his waistband."

It's been said that repressing homosexuals created Proust, whereas liberating them created Cabaret. Maybe so, but it also created The Swimming-Pool Library, an immensely sexy gay novel every straight man owes it to himself to read.
Nic Kelman
girls (2003)
No. 4
Nic Kelman
girls (2003)

Nic Kelman's girls feels like a drug-fueled sex party's bleak days-long hangover. Yes, Fifty Shades of Grey plays around with bondage themes, but girls explores the far more insidious bondage of being a man with a brain—and by "brain" I mean the primitive Neanderthal brain that hastened our escape from the savanna by telling our loping ancestors to fuck whatever they felt like fucking. Reading girls is like wandering around a strange city at night with money in your pocket, loose women on your mind, and great black wings flapping in your chest.

There aren't really any sustained characters in girls; it's told mostly in a second-person "you" that floats between various rich older men involved with various young—sometimes alarmingly so—women. The women, moreover, tend to be sex workers, as in the book's opening vignette, which involves a businessman in Korea deciding to summon to his room a prostitute who turns out to be younger than he anticipated. As the man begins to touch the girl, he notices "how clumsy" his fingers are, "how enormous, how ugly. Like a gorilla's."

This is not a misogynistic book, though its characters are often misogynists. Nevertheless, girls mixes up vividly detailed sex scenes with episodes of sociosexual horror so successfully that I imagine many women could read it only by turning the pages with tongs. The distinct type of misogyny Kelman's most interested in cataloging is, at any rate, less a hatred of women than a hatred of human existence itself.

Kelman doesn't shrink from the more nightmarish aspects of sex. One older man swings a teenage girl around so that her "little breasts" meet his "hungry mouth," and as he stuffs his fingers into her, he notes that she "couldn't have weighed more than a hundred and five pounds"—a line that made me nearly physically ill. But if I'm honest, I must also admit the line triggered an awful kind of animal arousal, too. Kelman's prose cracks right through the soft shale of what we think sex writing should properly address and shows us the petroleum darkness agush at fathoms the civilized mind no longer cares to explore.
James Salter
A Sport and a Pastime (1967)
No. 5
James Salter
A Sport and a Pastime (1967)

It's somewhat shocking to realize that James Salter's A Sport and a Pastime was published within a decade of the final relaxation of American censorship. The book's sex scenes are so raw, sad, and beautiful that its prose seems to exist outside aesthetic time. These pages could have been written yesterday or pulled from a steamer trunk sealed tight for a hundred years at the bottom of the ocean.

Salter's nameless narrator, a man wandering around provincial France sometime in the early 1960s, meets another young American, named Phillip Dean. After a few brief, ghostly scenes involving the two, Dean wanders off to take up with Anne-Marie, a poor and somewhat plain 18-year-old French girl. Soon enough, Salter's narrator is watching the young lovers court, fall in love, undress, have sex, and drift apart. Much of what the narrator tells involves experiences he has no direct access to. As a result, the book feels like an innovatively triangulated hybrid of memoir, novel, and dream.

Salter's prose is the functional equivalent of sex, thrumming and disassociated and suddenly hard and breathless when it chooses to pounce and linger: "The trains are running on time. Along the empty streets, yellow headlights of a car occasionally pass.... With a touch like flowers, she is gently tracing the base of his cock, driven by now all the way into her, touching his balls, and beginning to writhe slowly beneath him in a sort of obedient rebellion."

The great mistake most writers make in writing about sex is approaching it as though it merits special attention. It doesn't. It simply merits the same attention one would give weather, a face, a tree. Describing the sexual act requires no specialist vocabulary, no raising or lowering of diction, and absolutely no euphemism, which is a tool of the craven. In that sense, A Sport and a Pastime could be the aspiring writer's how-to guide. Its sex scenes, most of which are brief, are so rich with conflicted emotion and churning ambivalence that no one who's ever been young and in love will be able to read it without wincing, as when Dean notes Anne-Marie's bad breath or her homely "shopgirl's" face moments after making love to her. Isn't at least half of what makes sex sex what we're thinking while having it? Not all those thoughts are kind. Some, in fact, are privately cruel. Intimacy with another human being is nothing if not being constantly aware of how easily you could hurt them.
I'm not sure that fans of Fifty Shades of Grey even want to read about sex. With all due respect to Sue (and Sue's husband), I think the book's success is more about its modernization of the Harlequin-romance formula—a kind of de-vampirized, harder-edged Twilight. It's not about sex so much as it is about tunneling into the densely protected heart of a Dark Unavailable Man. Or maybe the Grey books' zillions of readers just want to be abused, and the flog that comes down on their backs is one of nerve-deadening prose.

A hot literary sex scene is, above all else, truthful about sex as it's felt and experienced by actual human beings. A bad literary sex scene is cynical—a commercial for impossible sensations. Writers who write about sex effectively unprivatize privacy; they remind a reader that he or she is not alone in kink or quirk. To write about sex well, you have to be brave. To read about sex well, though, you have to be honest. You have to be willing to be turned on, and you have to be willing to be disgusted; you also have to understand the difference between being turned on and being disgusted. That's the nutshell history of  censorship: turned-on people claiming to be disgusted.

Reading about sex takes two of our most private selves—the sexual self and the reading self and makes a two-backed beast of them. It allows you to wander into a library and discover an orgy. It makes you smarter and more attentive and might even make you a better lover. Once again, gentlemen: Read to the lady, why don't you.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Ben Affleck: Filmmaker of the Year 2012

After he directed a couple of good movies, you probably thought: Eh, Boston crime flicks? Big deal—he barely left his backyard. But now, thanks to his globe-trotting, Oscar-caliber Argo—a gripping period thriller slash pitch-perfect showbiz satire— there's no denying it: Ben Affleck is a world-class filmmaker. He explains to Chris Heath how he hit rock bottom and reinvented himself as Hollywood's newest heavyweight

"I'm a little bit scattered and frazzled," Ben Affleck declares. His third movie as a director, Argo, is a few weeks from opening, and he has been doing all he can to help it on its way. These days, he explains, he's reluctant to push himself too far to promote movies where he is just an actor—some reasons for this may become clear later on—but when he is the director, everything's different. "I direct a movie," he says, "and I'll stand out there in a chicken outfit with one of those twirling signs: FIVE DOLLARS OFF CHICKEN IF YOU SEE ARGO."

Perhaps it's in that spirit—sign-twirling salesman in a chicken suit—that Affleck initially engages with today's conversation. Never mind that Argo, based on the unbelievable-but-true tale of how the CIA set up a fake Hollywood science-fiction B movie in an attempt to smuggle six Americans out of Iran during the embassy crisis of 1979, is plenty good enough to prosper on its own merits. Its director—and its star—is also prepared to do whatever he must, which these days tends to require his acquiescence in the telling of a simple, three-part story about Ben Affleck's life so far: the rise, the fall, and then the unexpected reemergence as Hollywood's latest actor turned director with the golden touch.

All three parts of that story are, broadly speaking, true, but the full tale is a lot stranger and crazier and, at times, much more brutal. And as we begin to linger on some of the more extraordinary details, Affleck becomes increasingly animated. It feels as though it's been a while since he has really talked this through, and that he might still have as much to work out about what happened to him as anyone else.
Ben Affleck was a child actor, if not exactly a child star. His big success was a long-running educational science TV series called The Voyage of the Mimi, in which he was inquisitive and smart and keen and a little dorky. Acting was all he ever wanted to do, a delicate ambition to hold in a family with a father who had once wished for the same. "I lived with this tremendous fear of failure," Affleck says, "because my father was a playwright and a director, and I think he did a couple of things as a child as an actor as well, and he...he failed, basically. Not just being an alcoholic and stuff. He didn't do what he said he was going to do. He worked with guys who later became famous, like James Woods and Dustin Hoffman, and he wasn't successful. And that wasn't going to be me."

Affleck explicitly connects some of the missteps he would make later in his career to this fear of failure. "That definitely drove me," he says. "It drove me and drove me and drove me." But if it hurt, it also helped. "I have it to blame for some choices of working for money," he reflects, "and I have it to thank for not giving up."

Affleck became friends with Matt Damon when he was 8. Damon was 10. At that age, a two-year gap is huge and an unlikely one to have bridged. Damon's bicycle was too big for Affleck to ride, he remembers, and Damon could simply blow him away on the basketball court. But there was something that balanced everything out. "I was littler and I was younger, but I had done acting," he says, "and that's something that Mattwanted to do. That's the thing I had." He was happy to share it. Affleck introduced Damon to his New York agent, who was pleased to sign up Damon, too: "He had the perfect look—blond-sweet-all-American-boy kind of face." After that, the two of them would travel down from Boston together to fail at the same auditions—for The Mickey Mouse Club, Batman & Robin—and would share lots of intense-young-actor talk, planning out careers they hadn't yet earned any reason to expect. "I remember," says Affleck, laughing at their presumption, "we both decided that the ideal career to have was Robert Duvall's."

After the usual years of struggle came the miracle of Good Will Hunting. "It was a product of a time in one's life that is actually kind of magical—when you've become capable and have yet to realize that you're fallible and that you're going to die," Affleck reflects. In the movie, Damon was the lead—the instinctive math genius who may or may not learn to cherish and use his talent—and Affleck was the kindhearted storytelling manual-laborer friend who, for his comrade to soar free, would have to be left behind. Much of what the two of them put into the screenplay was drawn from their own lives, but it took Affleck a while to realize that some people also assumed that this overall dynamic was true. "Like 'Here's the lovable dim friend who's along for the ride' or something," he says. "And Matt was a math genius! I didn't even realize it for a long time, because it was such a positive experience. It was only two years later I had a conversation with a girl in the business, she said something along the lines of, 'I thought you were the dim-witted friend—you're pretty bright.' I was shocked. I had this moment of profound reflection: Does everybody think this about me?"
fake-teeth-getting part of my career.' " Affleck seems unsure to this day whether this choice counts as an iniquitous compromise or as common sense and a free upgrade. "I guess I'm torn between my vanity and my principles still."

More big roles followed. Exactly how and when the tide turned against Affleck is complicated, but certainly one of the first markers was his second Michael Bay movie, Pearl Harbor. "The problem was," he says, "that Michael just wanted to make Armageddon putting it in an aircraft carrier in World War II. You can put it almost anywhere, but you can't put it in the Second World War." Still, Pearl Harbor is one of those movies that, while remembered as something of a fiasco, was actually a significant international hit. And so Affleck, who deferred his usual fee but got a share of the profits, presumably made a fortune.

"Yeah, it worked out pretty well," he says evenly. "Yeah. Although I feel like I earned every penny. I remember someone doing a joke that said, 'That movie Pearl Harbor is the worst thing that happened to America since Pearl Harbor.' "

What are the chances of you ever making a third movie with Michael Bay?

"Uh, I don't have any interest in engaging in that sort of speculation."

The truly grim years were 2003 and 2004. One factor surely was that all five movies he released in that period (Daredevil, Gigli, Paycheck, Jersey Girl, and Surviving Christmas) were disasters of one kind or another. But it was also because the public simultaneously seemed to lap up and obsess over—and yet be disdainful of—every unremarkable aspect of his relationship with Jennifer Lopez. I had remembered a vague sense that he went through a particularly rough period, but reading back through the coverage of him in daily newspapers, it's shocking how casually poisonous it was. Here are some representative comments from respectable newspapers in that period:

There is something unbearably smug and self-satisfied about Ben Affleck.... In the history of Hollywood, has any person in his position made more wrong choices over an extended period of time?... Affleck's got a big-man-on-campus, aren't-I-fabulous vibe to him, a yappy confidence in interviews that suggests no one thinks Ben Affleck is quite as funny and charming as Ben Affleck does.... And they say we don't torture people.... Neither Lopez nor Affleck has a scintilla of the talent, epochal hold on us or enduring iconic status of their illustrious predecessors.... It's time to put Ben Affleck out of our misery.

I read two particularly blunt examples out loud to Affleck. One is: At the risk of generalizing, there may not be a person on the planet who is more socially acceptable to hate. The other: It is fashionable at the moment to loathe Ben Affleck. To be honest, the guy makes it easy.

"It's as mean-spirited a thing as it is kind of permissible to say in an editorial capacity," Affleck says in response to the second. That one comes from The Boston Globe. "My hometown paper."

Looking back, whatever Affleck's real or perceived shortcomings, the viciousness of what was said about him now looks like a kind of collective lunacy. "At the time, I knew on some level, 'This is insane,' " he says. No one on the planet was more socially acceptable to hate? Really? "What was that guy's name who killed his wife and dumped her off the side of a boat?" He supplies the answer himself. "Peterson. I remember thinking he actually gets slightly better treatment than I do in the press. At least they had to say 'alleged killer.' Unfortunately there's an aspect of that that's like one of those fights you see on YouTube where one of them falls down and then a bunch of people who were standing around come over and kick the person. They don't know them, they have no involvement in the fight, but they recognize a moment that they can get a free shot in, and for some people it's just too much to resist. And that was definitely me at that point. I was the guy. I was the designated person to loathe."

He's still trying to work out exactly what it was all about. "The amount of venom—I must have touched some specific little place in the consciousness," he says. "I don't believe I didn't deserve any negative judgment for anything, but it was just way out of whack." He couldn't recognize in himself the person he was suddenly assumed to be. "People decided that I was the frat guy, even though I've never been inside a fraternity, or the guy who beat them up at school, even though that wasn't me at all." There was also something about the way the public saw him and Lopez, as though they were each simultaneously unworthy of the other, both making some kind of laughably terrible mistake, some kind of humiliating blunder that involved race and gender and class and talent, so that both were acting in a way that was inauthentic, that was a shameful betrayal of who they really were. The notion that they might be two people who just happened to have fallen in love was given short shrift. (About Lopez they were, if anything, even harsher. Affleck mentions how glad he was when Lopez appeared recently on American Idol so that the public finally had a chance to see that she was a perfectly pleasant person.)

Part of the contempt centered around a perception that they were courting this kind of attention, deliberately living out a romance in public and for publicity. Affleck suggests that he and Lopez emerged as a famous celebrity couple at the exact moment that the market for celebrity-gossip magazines exploded; that they were caught in the crossfire, and also blamed for the public's simultaneous desire for and revulsion over all this endless coverage. Though Affleck and Lopez did do an unbearably cloying joint TV interview on Dateline, and probably updated the world about their ongoing romance in more detail than they needed to, there's little evidence that they went looking for what they received. "The most pernicious illusion, myth, was that this is something that this guy wants," says Affleck. " 'He's wanting this much coverage.' That's the most unappealing thing that you can say about somebody. And I knew how disastrous it was. It was the last thing I wanted, and I could tell it was damaging me, and I tried to get away from it, but there was still this idea: This is what this guy wants, he's a shallow guy, a camera whore or whatever. And there was no convincing people that that wasn't the case." The more he speaks about all of this, the more it's clear that, once reawakened, the torment—and his bewilderment over what overtook him—is still fresh.

He does concede some mistakes. "There were ways I did contribute to it, still kind of naively. Like these car dealerships would often say, 'Hey, do you want to drive around a car? Go take it as long as you like. You can drive this Rolls-Royce for nothing, for free.' The Boston kid in me thought, 'This is great! What a deal! I can just drive this car around. Let my friends drive it.' But then this image of a young guy in a Rolls-Royce was very off-putting to people. Probably be off-putting to me now if I saw it. And I didn't quite have the wherewithal to be smart about that at the time."

By the end of it all, Affleck had a series of failed movies, a failed relationship, and some of the worst press anyone has ever earned for doing little more than acting and being famous and occasionally showing a little clumsiness at both. He was left feeling battered by it all, an experience that he says "was really bad for me in all kinds of different ways, particularly in terms of my emotional life, my sense of self."

Did you strategize how to deal with it, or did you just run away for a while?

"I think I just ran away. You can only handle so much. I moved for a while to this place in Georgia that I have, was able to get away, by and large, from stuff. Come up with a plan for how to do something with my life that doesn't put me in the crosshairs of this sort of thing."


Affleck decided that he wanted to direct a movie. The last time he had directed anything was as a student in California: a precociously themed short about a film director who goes mad. "About how people who are creative are indulged," says Affleck. "And they can do anything outrageous just because they are successful." He didn't write the script, but he did come up with the title: I Killed My Lesbian Wife, Hung Her on a Meathook, and Now I Have a Three Picture Deal at Disney.

Now he wanted to direct a real feature film. At the time he had little optimism about how, even if he managed to pull it off, a movie directed by Ben Affleck would be welcomed. "I just assumed it would be received poorly," he says, "because it seemed the way that people wanted to talk about me." But Gone Baby Gone, a modestly budgeted dark thriller adapted from a Dennis Lehane book and starring his brother, Casey, was received warmly. "Nobody went to the movie, but we got pretty decent reviews."

Back then, there was another measure of success or failure that stuck in his head. He had never thought of Gone Baby Gone as the first step in a bold new career, but somebody told him that about 80 percent of the members of the Directors Guild of America only ever make one movie, and when he heard that he was determined not to be one of them. "The first day of The Town was one of the most satisfying days of my career," he says. "For better or worse, I'm going to have made two movies." The Town was a tale of crime and love in Boston, and this time Affleck directed himself in the lead role. Affleck says that The Town tested poorly in previews, and so it came as a surprise when it was not only acclaimed but a substantial commercial hit. Now, with the early enthusiasm surrounding Argo, Affleck suddenly seems to be reinvented as someone who can do little wrong.

When asked what he may be good at as a director, Affleck talks about allowing actors a freedom to relax and time to succeed, and about having the patience to edit performances meticulously, and about looking out for the kind of special moments he cherished when he watched movies ("...that great moment where Brando turns around and looks at Martin Sheen...this incredible moment in Glory where Denzel is getting whipped and looks up...") and building a movie around them, and about a focus on a kind of simplicity ("My movies are unadorned, they're not particularly fancy, I think they're kind of workmanlike in some ways, focusing on the writing and the acting"), and most of all about the pure amount of effort he puts in. "I appreciate the fact that I get to do it, and I work really, really hard. I went into it thinking, 'I'm new at this,' but I also went into it with a healthy sense that I needed to succeed, and the one thing I could control was to work as hard or harder than anyone else."
Why did you need to succeed?

"It just felt like life or death to me."


Our conversation takes place on the top floor of the Beverly Hilton, chosen because it is where a key scene in Argo was filmed. During the shoot, this room was full of actors dressed as bad-science-fiction aliens for a press event intended to drum up authentic-seeming publicity for the fake film whose production is devised as cover to smuggle the six Americans out of Iran. Today there are just the two of us, seated at a very small table in a large empty room. Hotel staff periodically come by to inquire when everyone else will be arriving.

As we talk, Affleck eats a burger. On the way here, he was caught in Los Angeles tra c and suddenly realized that he was alongside the TMZ Hollywood Tour and that he had been spotted. He gamely waved to the passengers and clearly was as charming as the situation required. ("Very cool guy, drove right up next to the bus and said hi to everyone," someone aboard later tweeted.) But Affleck tells me that it soon got awkward, because the tra c forced the two vehicles to shuffle forward together, and the TMZ host began to bombard him with family questions. Eventually he turned off into a store's parking lot, not because it was somewhere he wanted to go but because it was somewhere they wouldn't.

Soon he'll be returning to the family they were asking about: "There's going to be three maniacs screaming and running around the house." Affleck explains how skillfully his older children—he has 6- and 3-year-old daughters as well as a baby son born earlier this year—are learning to stretch out the bedtime ritual by increments, day by day. "But it's sweet," he says, "and washes away all the other stuff."

Affleck is married to Jennifer Garner. They got together at the end of that period when everything was at its lowest. "It was a really, really good thing that happened to me around the time that it was nice to have something good happen," he says. "And she's just a great woman and a great friend." As well as, he says, a stellar mother: "She has such wise and certain stewardship over these three characters that I love so much."

Which presumably allows you to sweep in to be hero dad.

"Oh, believe me, I'm always trying to sweep in and be hero dad, give them things they're not allowed to have, just completely pander to them. 'Have you had dessert yet?' 'You guys want to watch TV?' "


Affleck is not without ego, but he seems sincere about the fact that he considers his directing career only in its early days and that there is much more he can learn. To this end he is currently giving himself a methodical education, a process triggered by the book 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die and his realization that he'd seen far too few. (His favorite discovery so far has been the work of John Cassavetes: "I totally ripped off The Killing of a Chinese Bookie for the L.A. sections of Argo.")

That's also the reason why he took the latest of his now occasional acting roles for another director in Terrence Malick's To the Wonder. Affleck is well aware that the result may not be to everyone's taste. "I understand it got booed quite thoroughly at [the Venice Film Festival]," he says. "Honestly, you have to want to see that movie—there's hardly any talking. It's a tone poem. If you don't want to see that, you should not go." Affleck had a fair idea of what he was getting involved in because when he met Malick for lunches and dinners beforehand, Malick would tell him things like, "Just more and more I'm more interested in silences"—which is a slightly unusual thing to say to an actor you're about to cast in a movie. Malick also told Affleck he wanted him to be like Gary Cooper, but when Affleck showed Malick some Gary Cooper tapes he'd put together, Malick was horrified. "Oh, no no no! He's just rattling on!" Malick exclaimed. This wasn't the Gary Cooper of Malick's memory: "Gary Cooper, he just stares off."

They filmed for eight weeks in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. "The experience of it seemed half-crazy in that we didn't really have dialogue, so I didn't really know what was happening. Then I realized that he was accumulating colors that he would use to paint with later in the editing room. My character doesn't really do that much. It was kind of a wash for me in terms of learning something as an actor, because Terry uses actors in a different way—he'll [have the camera] on you and then tilt up and go up to a tree, so you think, 'Who's more important in this—me or the tree?' But you don't ask him, because you don't want to know the answer."

Anyway, Affleck didn't take the job for that—he took the job because he wanted to learn from Malick as a director, and this he did: ways of using natural light, being nimble enough to just jump out of a van and start filming. More skills stored up for all the movies he hopes to make.

One film he is developing—"It's not ready; it's not good enough yet"—is about the Boston gangster Whitey Bulger and will star Matt Damon. (Affleck and Damon regularly confer about work. Damon and his wife and four kids live very close to Affleck in the same Los Angeles neighborhood and get together for barbecues and such.) Affleck is also working on an adaptation of Stephen King's The Stand, struggling to condense its epic nature into a manageable form. "Right now we're having a very hard time," he says. "But I like the idea—it's like The Lord of the Rings in America. And it's about how we would reinvent ourselves as a society. If we started all over again, what would we do?"
You can hear his calm and satisfaction when he talks about things like this, as though he has finally found himself a life with the kinds of problems he wants to have. In his head he has a notion that he should direct four movies in the next ten years. With maybe the occasional acting job in between.

"I'm in a place where I feel a bit more like I felt after Good Will Hunting, but with a sort of added perspective," he says. "I feel like I've gone round a loop once. And for this lap, it's more measured. I'm not the most loathsome man in the world. I've dropped to number nine."

Channing Tatum: Movie Star of the Year 2012

Yes, he was a stripper. Yes, he was in Step Up—and Step Up 2: The Streets. But after a year like this, when he showed not just his abs and his glutes but his smarts and his inner Stanislavsky, it's time to give Channing Tatum his due. Meet America's newest bona fide movie star
It's about two in the afternoon when I finally see the day starting to wear on Channing Tatum. They're setting up the next shot for his movie, White House Down, and Channing is sitting in a director's chair wearing a wife-beater and some pants, plus a bloody gash on his arm and some spray-on movie soot. (His hair looks marvelous.)

The movie is basically Die Hard in the White House. It's the kind of movie in which Channing shoots everything "except for maybe a Javelin missile. But the president might get to shoot a missile, I'm not saying." They're filming today outside Montreal, at a driving range housed in an enormous inflatable bubble. The turf of the range has been covered by a vast carpeting of actual sod, on top of which are cameras and lights, crashed helicopters, fire engines, ambulances, and the entire back facade of the White House, rebuilt to scale, with some gashes in the pillars.
Channing Tatum is an indefatigable dude. He's relentlessly energetic and positive and upbeat. He is just happy to be here. He is grateful to be here. But right now, Channing actually looks like a guy who spent the past twelve hours crawling around on his hands and knees saving the world and the nuclear football and the president, etc. For an indefatigable dude, he looks, you know, defatigable.

Okay, part of it is that he skipped lunch to go work out with his trainer, which he does twice a day. They've built a gym for him near the bubble. (Jamie Foxx uses it, too.)

"We have a trailer we go in and do meatheadish things," Channing says.

How'd it go today, workout-wise?

"It was good, it was good. Deadlifted 425."

He is not, of course, simply tired from whaling delts/deadlifting 425. He whales on his delts all the time at home, and he hardly ever gets tired. It's more that White House Down is about to wrap after two months of six-day weeks. And he crammed this movie into the space between reshooting G.I. Joe: Retaliation and starting Foxcatcher, directed by Bennett Miller, which begins in less than a week.

I have spoken to professionals in the filmed-entertainment business about Channing's shooting schedule, and the verdict: insane. Sadistically insane, possibly not-good-for-career burnout insane. But: "Big actors have told me to get it while the getting is good. Grind it."

Who told you that?

"Ahhh, I'm not gonna drop names," he says. "You know, very successful, smart actors. And they were like: 'Grind it. If you love it, grind it.' I did. They said: 'And a lot of people who didn't grind it, it's not that they're not in a good place, but I'm in a better place.' "

This was the year that launched Channing Tatum into that special, lonely orbit in which one's dream career becomes an almost cannibalistically demanding job. He starred in three films. 21 Jump Street. The Vow. Magic Mike. Every one of these films not only way outperformed what they were meant to, box-office-wise, but seemed to cement the notion that people go to movies just to see Channing Tatum.

It's not right to boil a guy down like this, but here's a theory about who he is: He's the star football player whom you have to tutor in algebra, only to discover that, deep down, he's got just a giant heart. That boiled-downness can be experienced in its purest form in Magic Mike, based on the real-life stripping career of Channing Tatum. It's not merely that he has an uncanny ability to retain his dignity while greased up in only a shirt collar, pop-and-locking his junk onto the floor while twirling an umbrella. It's that you believe the odds are stacked against him. Maybe it's that his mouth can never get out of the way of the words he's saying, but you root for him. Just like you root for him when he yells "Fuck you, science!" at a dry-erase board full of numbers in 21 Jump Street.

Or consider The Vow, about a guy teaching his amnesiac wife to love him again. "I did The Vow because I really love being in love," he tells me. That's who Channing Tatum is. A guy who takes his vacations doing survival trips in the Amazon with former SAS members (true) and desperately wants to fight a sanctioned MMA bout but also tells you he loves being in love, and you just want to be like, COME HERE AND GIVE ME A HUG, BRO.

A man wanders by with a box full of "burritos beef" that he hawks with a French accent. Channing looks at the box like he wants to mount it. He glances hopefully at his trainer. The trainer shakes his head, like: You know better than that. Channing turns away from the box, and his face is steely with resolve. You can sleep, and have burritos beef, when you're dead, Channing Tatum. Right now you have a meeting with the president of the United States on his helicopter.

Jamie Foxx, duh, plays the president.

Suit by Calvin Klein Collection. Shirt by Ralph Lauren Black Label. Tie by DiBi. Shoes by Tom Ford. Socks by Pantherella . Pocket square by Paul Stuart . watch by Georg Jensen.

This Suit Can Talk
And it's saying, "I've got confidence." Business suits with a slight sheen to the fabric—usually a wool-mohair blend—are back in style. Just make sure your shine is subtle, not blinding.

Suit by Tom Ford. Shirt by John Varvatos. Tie by Burberry Prorsum. Shoes by Salvatore Ferragamo. Tie bar and pocket square by The Tie Bar.
Do You Know What Slim Means?
Tight means you can't move. Slim means you can break-dance. To get the right fit, find the size that's one up from too damn restrictive. Then let your tailor do the rest.

Suit by Dolce & Gabbana. Shirt by John Varvatos. Tie by Band of Outsiders. Shoes by Salvatore Ferragamo. Socks by Pantherella. Pocket square by Paul Stuart.

How to Choose Your Supporting Cast
If you start piling on the blingy accessories while wearing a shiny suit, you can start to look like a contract killer in a B movie. Follow this leading man's lead and keep the accoutrements minimal.

Suit and tie by Emporio Armani. Shirt by Charvet at MrPorter.com. Tie bar by and pocket square The Tie Bar.

Countdown to Fatherhood: A Manifesto

One dad-to-be looks into the abyss, and the abyss looks into him

outweighed by the upside. Should you complicate that primordial narrative with serious emotional reservations, you are History's Greatest Monster, and you may as well eat your child as evilly and cackley as possible with some sriracha aioli and a few stunned but still-breathing Labrador puppies.

So here's the bad news, for me at least: I'm having trouble mustering excitement about my son's arrival into the world, mere days from now. I'm happy for him, of course - come on out, fella! You'll never feel that sense of achievement again! - and I'm especially grateful that he's not entering a Mitt-ruled world, with its high-yield investing strategies and low opinion of lady parts. But the God's-honest reality is that a backflow of worries rises all the way from my heels to the back of my teeth, flooding out the groovy vibes.

There are many kinds of paternal worries. I have a rather extensive fear of fecal matter and its many malodorous forms. I worry about the absurdly expensive luxury versions of every imaginable piece of baby accouterment. (Am I a sonofabitch if young Henry Gregory Edwards-Weinstein doesn't have a Gant Rugger polo of his very own?) I worry about the possibility of having to poop while alone in my own house, and figuring out whether to take the baby into the loo with me... and if so, where he goes while I go.

But these are trifles. I am chiefly filled with the worries you're not supposed to voice, for fear of being labeled a self-centered Bad Parent. I worry about trading what little semblance of fashion sense I've cultivated in exchange for jorts, Crocs and lawn mowing-ready t-shirts. I worry about quitting drinking and tossing darts all night while psychobilly plays on the jukebox at the local smoky drinking hole.

What I mean is that I worry about the finitude of life. I worry that, starting now, I will sleeplessly work myself to the nub in order to nurture an eye-rolling, money-burning pissant who thinks my experience and wisdom and advice are so much smelly patronizing bullshit. And then I will die.

There's a dictionary of existentialism, and it has an entry that deals with finitude. Let me sum it up for you: You're going to fucking die. You're probably more than halfway there already, you overworked meatstick. At the heart of human existence, it says, there is "the dreadful, haunting consciousness of finitude."

There is a very real sense in which this whole death thing comes about because we have babies. Single-celled organisms, like bacteria, reproduce asexually: A cell divides itself, and voila, there is the next generation - no sex, no baby, no mess, and essentially no death. The parent quite literally lives on in its offspring. Us? We live, we come together to screw, we bear children, and we make pretty corpses. We say we live on in our kids and grandkids, but of course it's a metaphor; little Sally or Johnny can't carry us, wrinkly and tired but still stirring, into the last half of the 21st century.

And I swear, when I think about how my son wasn't there and then he was; when I think about how he'll need me and then he won't; when I think how my future seemed wide open and now it doesn't, I think about death, and how much closer it's gotten, and how little I did with all the time I spent up to this point, when I was not considering my beginning, middle, and end.

So what's the score here? How does one win this game? There are those dads-to-be who embrace their own lives by fleeing the one they've created. Some become deadbeat divorces. Some just live at work. Immerse themselves in man-caves. Retreat into their NFL Sunday Ticket.

These are all fine diversions, and tempting escapes. But I don't know. My impending fatherhood impels me to make better use of my time, however much I may have. For example, I should probably stop wasting time reading the dictionary of existentialism, even though it tells me that "far from being a weakness, anxiety commands considerable strength and fortitude."

Sign me up for some of that. Not the strength to coach tee-ball or wipe little Henry's strained-pea vomit or check the school districts and HOA fees before picking a future domicile, mind you. I want the strength to write that goddamn book and take my family on that Baltimore-to-Key West sailing-sloop vacation. I want to tell my wife how sexy she is, even when she isn't (and let's face it, if we didn't live in an age of science, I could be easily convinced that a fetus derives its life-force from the parents' gradual sacrifice of sexual allure through the gestation period.) In short, I want to start living, not stop.

I warned you earlier about the dads who talk in all clichés. I have one of these dads. You probably do, too. The last thing you need is another puffy, sleep-deprived dude with a Baby Bjorn telling you that the adventure is just beginning, or that when one door closes, another opens. I won't tell you, as my father told me, that everything changes for the better when you see that little cheeky monkey face for the first time, and all these questions fade every time you conjure the image of that face. That may be true; I'll find out soon enough.

For now, all I can tell you is that I'm buying into the live-forever metaphor: When I'm dead, I want my kid to think I was cool as fuck. And I'll die trying to make that happen. That, and getting this goddamned pack-n'-play to fit in the back of our Subaru.

All Eyez on Him

The junior senator from Florida had a heck of an election year: Short-listed for VP. Wrote a memoir of his Cuban heritage. Gave a tough, moving convention speech—maybe the best of its kind since Obama's. Michael Hainey talks to Marco Rubio about growing up in the shadow of Castro, his love of Tupac, and whether he's going to have an even better 2016

Two years ago, Marco Rubio was a little-known baby-faced Florida pol, toiling away in Tallahassee. Then the almighty Tea Party got behind his long-shot bid for the U.S. Senate. Cut to this year. The 42-year-old Cuban-American spent a good chunk of 2012 swatting away speculation that he would join Mitt Romney on the ticket. Yet at the Republican convention, it was Rubio's optimistic, confident, and centered speech that left many wondering if they should start printing RUBIO '16 placards right now.

I met up with Rubio in the back room of a local community center in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood. He had just come from the GQ photo shoot and was still sweating from the early-morning heat. Rubio smiles a lot and likes to put people at ease. But he also speaks with the restraint of a guy who knows everything he says will be parsed and, most likely, used against him. "I've learned the hard way," he says. "You have to always be thinking how your actions today will be viewed at a later date."


GQ: You're the first senator I've ever spoken to who had a transformative life experience at a South Beach foam party—committing to the woman who became your wife.
Marco Rubio: That was an important moment. I'd say I made the right call. It was embarrassing too because my shoes were a cheap brand and when I walked out they were white. They were black when I went in.

GQ: How do you balance ambition and humility?
Marco Rubio: I'll let you know [laughs]. We're working on that. Where it really comes into play is deciding things you really have to do and the things you want to do. Especially with my family. I have four kids. In the past, I would try to figure out how could I go to that thing and maybe leave a little early so that I could make it to my kids thing; but increasingly, I've figured out that you're either all in or you're not.

GQ: Do you think you're moving too fast?
Marco Rubio: For most of my life I've been in a hurry. I don't regret any of the choices I've made, but sometimes timing isn't up for us to decide on taking some of the opportunities as they present themselves.

GQ: We've seen people tend toward inspiring transformational figures. You know you had Barack Obama in 2004...

Marco : I don't know how inspiring I am to people on the left [laughs], but I'm not a big believer in transformative people in politics. There are people that have a historic opportunity to speak the truth and take on issues of the historic moment.

GQ: Do you want to be one of those people?
Marco Rubio: That's not something you can choose to be. That's something that just happens and falls on your lap. Usually, it falls on your lap during periods of extreme trial and I don't think any of us want to experience extreme trial for our country. We would much prefer to be not historic on those terms. I think I've been given a unique opportunity to serve during an important time in American history and I would like to make a contribution. I am troubled that sometimes in our political discourse we spend all of our time focused on the challenges of the next century rather than on the opportunities of the new century.

GQ: People often talk about how there are politicians and there are leaders.
Marco Rubio: A politician is very good at navigating the process of politics. It involves getting a few things done for the people who sent you there, but mostly perpetuating your time in office. A leader may end up being able to accomplish that, but is more motivated by the desire to accomplish something, and usually when you try to accomplish something you're almost never judged kindly by your contemporaries. I think that's true for all great leaders. If you look back, they were almost all significantly unpopular or had tremendous opposition they faced because of what they were trying to do.

GQ: By that definition Obama would fall into that, right?
Marco Rubio: Just because you have opposition doesn't make you a great leader. The opposition faced by Barack Obama is a lot more based on an ideology and view of government that stands in contrast with what half this country believes. That's why there is great opposition to him and I think there will be the same type of opposition for the person who gets elected and believes in the same things I believe in.

GQ: The Republican strategy after Obama came into office was to make sure the president didn't have another term. The Republicans didn't have a plan and were just going to say no to everything the president put forth.
Marco Rubio: I don't know how many people bought into that. There were some in politics who believed that all you had to do was be the alternative to the incumbent and you would win, but I never believed in that. I've always believed that you were better on offense than you were on defense. You were much better being for something than against someone. I think the bigger challenge that we face, and that we continue to face, is that we have not done a good enough job of communicating to people what conservatism is. In fact, we've allowed a myth to take hold in the minds of some that conservatism is about helping the people who have "made it" and not about helping the people who are trying to make it. I think we have a very compelling argument, which happens to be true: the people who have made it, billionaires and multi-billion dollar corporations, they may not like big government, but they can afford to deal with it. They can hire the best lawyers in America and try to figure out the loopholes and the best lobbyists to create them. In fact, they use big government to their advantage. They'll have regulations and rules written to hurt their competition. So, big government helps the people who have made it. It doesn't help the people who are trying to make it, it crushes the people who are trying to make it. So, our challenge is, if we want free enterprise, limited government, and conservatism to be a viable and successful political movement in America, we've got to make that connection for people.
GQ: One of the poignant moments in your book is when you're hanging out with your grandfather on the porch. If he were with you now, what are some things you would ask him?

Marco : My sense is that he would be troubled by the promise that more government can deliver. I'm not making any comparison between Barack Obama and Castro from Cuba—but I was raised in a community of people who were told that if government had more power it could equalize things and it could give them more than others, and at the minimum undo some of the unfair things that had been done to them, and they were very skeptical of that given the experience that they had had.

GQ: You were obviously very moved by your grandfather's dignity and your father's dignity. What are the qualities that would qualify for a man to have dignity?

Marco : Ultimately, the dignity that my grandfather and father had was showing up every day and providing for their families. The challenges they faced were very basic. You know, I think I said it in the book a tough day for me is if I lose an election or get a bad story in the paper. A tough day for my dad was they might be late on the rent. A tough day for my grandfather might have meant his daughters didn't eat.

GQ: How old do you think the Earth is?
Marco Rubio: I'm not a scientist, man. I can tell you what recorded history says, I can tell you what the Bible says, but I think that's a dispute amongst theologians and I think it has nothing to do with the gross domestic product or economic growth of the United States. I think the age of the universe has zero to do with how our economy is going to grow. I'm not a scientist. I don't think I'm qualified to answer a question like that. At the end of the day, I think there are multiple theories out there on how the universe was created and I think this is a country where people should have the opportunity to teach them all. I think parents should be able to teach their kids what their faith says, what science says. Whether the Earth was created in 7 days, or 7 actual eras, I'm not sure we'll ever be able to answer that. It's one of the great mysteries.

GQ: You talk a lot to young Republicans. Recently I met a Republican who said, my kids are in high school and there's a prom. There's straight kids, gay kids. It's no big deal to them. And he says, my party, the Republican party, has to stop putting these social issues out there and talking more about stuff that effects people.
Marco Rubio: I think that's unfair. A significant percentage of Americans feel very strongly about this issue. What I'm hearing is that it's ok for one side to express their view and the other side needs to be quiet. There are a very significant number of Americans that feel very strongly about the issue of life, about the issue of marriage and are we saying that they should be silenced or not allowed to speak or voice their opinion? There's a way to do that that is respectful and productive. There are things we'll always disagree on, but it doesn't mean we go to war over them or divide our country over them. We agree to disagree, but we continue to work together on the things we all know that we have to do.

GQ: Who's your best friend?
Marco Rubio: My wife. We talk every day.

GQ: Besides your wife.
Marco Rubio: [South Carolina Senator and Tea Party favorite] Jim DeMint. He's a great source of wisdom as a person who's had to make decisions that have made him unpopular in his own party. Jeb Bush is another guy I admire for his ability to analyze issues and call them for what they are.

GQ: Your autobiography also has to be the first time a politician has cited a love of Afrika Bambaataa. Did you have a favorite Afrika Bambaataa song?
Marco Rubio: All the normal ones. People forget how dominant Public Enemy became in the mid 80s. No one talks about how transformative they were. And then that led to the 90s and the sort of East Coast v. West Coast stuff, which is kinda when I came of age. There's a great documentary on Tupac called Resurrection about the last few years of Tupac's life and how he transformed. And, ironically, how this East Coast rapper became this West Coast icon, back when all that Death Row/Sean Combs stuff was going on. Hip Hop's 30 years old now and it's crossed over and sort of become indistinguishable from pop music in general. You know, many people say Nicki Minaj is a rapper, but she's also a singer. Kanye's another guy who's also a rapper, but his songs aren't pure rap anymore. There's also all these collaborations going on, which confuses everything. You know you've got the guy from Miami, Pitbull, who's on TV selling a car and then he's advertising for Dr. Pepper.

GQ: Your three favorite rap songs?
Marco Rubio: "Straight Outta Compton" by N.W.A. "Killuminati" by Tupac. Eminem's "Lose Yourself."

GQ: Is there a song you play to psych you up before a vote in the Senate?
Marco Rubio: I'm not like an athlete. The only guy that speaks at any sort of depth is, in my mind, Eminem. He's a guy that does music that talks about the struggles of addiction and before that violence, with growing up in a broken family, not being a good enough father. So, you know that's what I enjoy about it. It's harder to listen to than ever before because I have a bunch of kids and you just can't put it on. But in terms of psyching yourself up, I don't have time for that. You know you can't put on earphones and the storm the floor and vote [laughs].

GQ: So, Pitbull's too cheesy?
Marco Rubio: His songs are all party songs. There's no message for him, compared to like an Eminem. But look, there's always been a role for that in American music. There's always been a party person, but he's a young guy. You know, maybe as he gets older, he'll reflect in his music more as time goes on. I mean, he's not Tupac. He's not gonna be writing poetry.

NASA's Mars Rover Team: Spacemen of the Year 2012

NASA's Mars Rover Team: Spacemen of the Year 2012

Baker: Engineers don't believe in superstition. We believe in the laws of physics. But when it comes to things like this, you have a sense you'd better do what you've always done before.

Chen: You know the saying—"There are no atheists in a foxhole."

Baker: Late afternoon, things started happening. My Twitter feed started buzzing like mad. Then this radio show in Australia wants to interview me. That's when I realize the whole world is watching.

Chen: My job is to explain to the world what's going on. That was the first time anyone had ever put makeup on me. Not many people get to have their life's work play out before the whole world and also do the play-by-play of it. It was nerve-racking.

Devereaux: We see that people are watching in Times Square. There's a landing party at a bar in Seattle.

Chen: TV goes live with programming at eight thirty. The girl who named Curiosity is outside getting interviewed. There are sound checks. It's surreal.

Devereaux: My job was to be the fire extinguisher behind the glass. Hypothetically, something goes wrong, I'm expected to break the glass and leap into action. But really there was nothing I could do. There was nothing anyone in that room could do.

Steve Sell (war-room chief): We're just monitoring the data as it comes in. We've got engineers monitoring specific events, giving a thumbs-up if we're nominal. We make that call on the network and let Allen know.

Baker: A big milestone is forty minutes before atmosphere, a signal called EDL main. It's basically "Okay, no kidding, we're doing EDL now." I'm a snowboarder, so it's like you've gotten off the ski lift, you've edged over, and you're looking down that double black diamond.

Chen: Ten minutes before cruise-stage separation, Adam selects "All or Nothing at All" by Sinatra, plays it over the network.

Sell: There's a fourteen-minute speed-of-light delay. When we learn we're hitting the top of the atmosphere, in reality Curiosity has been sitting on the surface for seven minutes. Or she's dead. Either way, it was all over seven minutes ago.

Steltzner: But you don't live it that way. You're in the moment.

Chen: We separate from cruise and switch to an omnidirectional antenna. Our data stream slows significantly. We've suddenly got the speed of a dial-up modem, a blip of data every ten seconds.

Baker: If you want to make an engineer nervous, take away his data.

Chen: We watch the spacecraft turn off the fault-protection software. That keeps it from doing anything dangerous during cruise. It's about to start doing lots of dangerous things.

Sell: You can feel the anxiety level starting to rise.

Steltzner: I'm not sitting. I can't sit.

Devereaux: I'm seated next to the chief engineer, Rob Manning. He and Adam are pacers. The two of them are doing cycles around the room. They've got their own little orbits.

Davis: We had run millions of simulations. Now we had one chance to get it right.

Steltzner: When you get close to Mars, Mars starts sucking you in.

Baker: We hit the atmosphere doing 13,000 mph.

Chen: We pressurize the engines, start flying towards the target.

Baker: We've got eight rockets producing sixty pounds of thrust.

Chen: We're doing bank reversals, steering from left to right.

Baker: We're carving S's in the upper atmosphere.

Chen: In seventy seconds we hit our peak temperature, 1,300 degrees Celsius [2,372 Fahrenheit], and peak deceleration. The spacecraft is pulling twelve Earth g's.

Baker: For thirteen minutes we're getting this really low data rate, which means we're doing some critical things in the dark—cruise separation, de-spinning, pressurizing. Then boom! All our screens light up. We've got our data back. The Mars Odyssey satellite is now close enough to the spacecraft to give us a faster rate.

Baker: We do a maneuver called "straighten up and fly right" just before the parachute deploys. The parachute is going to yank us with 60,000 pounds of force.

Sengupta: Parachute deployment is particularly violent and chaotic.

Chen: We lose communication briefly when violent things happen to the spacecraft. Things are tense.

Sengupta: It's the largest parachute ever used on Mars, and it's deployed at the largest Mach number a parachute has ever been deployed, 950 mph, two times the speed of sound on Mars. It's unpredictable. It acts like a big jellyfish, collapsing and reinflating. It's just spewing everywhere.

Baker: We slow dramatically with the parachute.

Chen: The parachute deploys; the heat shield drops; our radar picks up the ground. We're nine kilometers up. You can hear some excitement in people's voices. But this is a place that has killed us in tests.

Baker: At back-shell separation, we sever the parachute, and the descent stage and rover fall out and free-fall for one second.

Chen: We activate the descent-stage thrusters. We do some pretty gnarly maneuvers to fly away from the back shell and parachute.

Baker: We're falling at 200 mph one minute before impact. The engines throttle up to slow us to 64 mph. I've never been more stressed-out.

Chen: Now we're hovering twenty meters above the surface, moving less than 2 mph.

Steltzner: I hear Al say, "Sky crane start." That was the part I was frankly most nervous about.

Davis: I'm the one who has to tell everyone that we've touched down, but you can't say, "Touchdown." There are two more confirmation steps after that.

Sell: You don't want Allen telling the world we've touched down when it's not confirmed. You don't want to fumble on the one-yard line.

Davis: So we came up with "Tango delta nominal." Only the core people knew what that meant.

Steltzner: I hear Jody say, "Tango delta nominal."

Davis: I want to scream it, but you have to remain cool and collected.

Steltzner: I'm like, "This could be pretty cool," but I'm still listening, listening...

Sell: There's an inertial sensor in Curiosity. When we learn that the rover is no longer moving, someone will say, "RIMU stable."

Steltzner: I hear, "RIMU stable..."

Sengupta: You've still got those high-velocity supersonic jets hovering twenty feet over the rover. You don't want that.

Baker: Curiosity tells the descent stage to fly away. Then it's got .7 seconds to fire pyrotechnic devices that cut the cables or it's going for a ride.

Davis: Everyone's bubbling with anticipation. I start this clock in the back of my head. We have to wait ten seconds after "RIMU stable" to make sure the fly-away has happened.

Baker: The descent stage flies 625 meters away and crashes into the surface going 100 mph.

Chen: Adam pokes me in the shoulder. I say, "Touchdown confirmed. We are safe on Mars."

Sell: The room erupts.

Steltzner: Almost immediately we get the thumbnail images. For me, that was it. That was the human existential proof that we did it.

Baker: [In the satellite photos] you could see this little plume. That was all my hardware and engines going up in a cloud of debris and vapor. Sometimes I think of someone finding that stuff one day, the stuff some nameless engineer spent eleven years of his life on. It would be like finding one of Columbus's ships.

Devereaux: The data is great, but you see pictures and you think, That is fucking Mars!

Davis: "Tango delta nominal" has become its own thing. I get tweets from people taking trips, and when their plane lands, they'll say, "Tango delta nominal Paris" or "Tango delta nominal L.A."

Devereaux: I walked around in a trance for a week.

Steltzner: So, um, it was a great night. Inspirational.

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