Discovering Peace on the River

Discovering Peace on the River

Originally published for Tenkara Angler

My dad told the story again in late June in Jonathan’s workshop, with saltwater, spin, and fly rods hanging on hooks above his head and Jonathan, my fly fishing sensei, sitting with a fat cigar in mouth on a stool beside his tying table, listening.

“I would set Brian up, then I would tell him: don’t reel it in until you feel a bite,” Dad recounted. In this story, he turns to my brother, Victor, and sets his bobber and hooks on a small minnow we had caught in a stream feeding the small lake in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains. Before Victor can cast I’m already reeling in my line. “Did you feel a bite?” Yeah, yeah, I say. On the other end the dying minnow, whole, flaps in the water.

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My Hero, Batistuta

My Hero, Batistuta

I was in eighth grade at PS 14. In Mrs. Squittieri’s history class we had been reading excerpts from The Odyssey and talking about heroes. I remember where I sat and the cover of the book of Greek mythologies we read from, which would become one of my childhood favorites. One day, in the way of all great teachers, she had connected the heroes of literature to the real-life heroes in our 13-year-old lives. I knew exactly who she was talking about.

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My Favorite Longform Journalism of 2018

At least since 2016, journalism has been in the spotlight. Despite what you may have heard, there are hardworking reporters at newspapers, magazines, and web outlets across the country who dig into issues that matter to us: crime, politics, sports, technology, arts and culture, healthcare, the outdoors. These are trained reporters—not talking heads or bloggers—who use editorial insight, interviews, weeks and months of in-depth research including scouring material and historical sources, and accessible writing styles to shed light on what we cannot fully understand without their work.

I read a lot of longform journalism: the most in-depth form of journalism, which means articles usually read more like novellas. These are some of my favorite stories from 2018, across genres. I highly recommend you read them.

If you enjoy these stories, subscribe to these serious outlets (and simultaneously quit your Facebook scroll and turn off your TV news networks). And use sources like Longform and Longreads to find curated lists of the best reporting happening out there in the world right now.

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The Most Important Things

“He lay there holding her. It had been hours on a rainy Sunday afternoon in February, and as the hours passed so did the sunlight that peaked through the cracks of the blinds in their bedroom. He did not move from his spot beside her even as darkness filled the house. The minutes passed, evening came, and he did not turn on the light. He only watched her chest rise as it filled with air and she exhaled. And he held her tightly.”

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The Phantom Punch

The Phantom Punch

The punch came from an angle he had never expected. The boxer didn’t actually see it as it landed just above his left cheek. Immediately the thin bone inside the thin layer of his flesh, bruised and cut from a hundred other punches, shattered.

The punch sent off a flash in the boxer’s mind. His mind went blank for a moment, like a big cinema screen before the start of a movie. “This must be what being ‘out on your feet’ feels like,” he thought. But then, vividly, a memory from his past began to play.

The boxer wasn’t a boxer then. He was 17 years old, and he stood in the backyard with her. Golden waves of hair gently splashed the dress straps clinging loosely to the girl’s shoulders. He caught her eyes. They were big, brown eyes and they were fixed on his, too. She smiled a bright, golden smile. The sun was high above the girl and the leafy branches on the tree behind her swayed. She was in the midst of whispering something to him.

Flash.

The boxer was back in the ring, bent over against the ropes, and deafened by the sound of the nearby spectators who cheered and shouted for the knockout. He looked up and caught the eyes of the man in front of him. Sweat poured from his own bruised face as the lights above enveloped him, blacking out everything behind him. Another punch was inches from colliding with the boxer’s chin. He was there, present in mind and body, and at the same time he wasn’t. Because it didn’t make sense. “Why her? Why now?”

The punch landed, the boxer’s knees buckled, and he let the force of his own weight take him down to the canvas. He rolled over onto his back and looked up at the lights above, blinking. He hoped for another flash.

“Goddammit. Come back. Please come back,” he thought.

Part of the motivation behind my blogging again is to share fragments of the short stories I’ve been working on. I don’t get the chance to write fiction as often as I once did. But, there’s something beautiful about it to me. Hemingway was quoted, saying, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” Except the blood, once it coagulates, can’t always be traced back exactly to you. There’s fragments there; pieces of you that you’ve poured out into your fiction. But, you borrow, create, and imagine, too.

In boxing, there was famous fight—the hugely anticipated rematch between Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston, who Ali had beaten to become the World Heavyweight Champion at the age of 22. Many people were still shocked from Ali’s first win and expected the heavily-muscled, knockout artist that was Liston to pummel the brash Kentuckian. But, that isn’t what happened. Instead, Ali scored a first-round knockout from a punch still debated more than 50 years later. Because much of the audience and television viewership didn’t see it land, it was called “the phantom punch.” After it knocked Liston on his butt, the bigger man rolled around for a few moments and didn’t get up. When the referee called off the fight the crowd immediately booed and yelled “Fix!”

Liston was known for his prior mob connections so naturally many commentators argued he took the fall on purpose to repay debts by losing at almost impossible odds. Others, like former heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano and Hall of Fame commentator Larry Merchant, reviewed the video of the fight and said the punch, albeit impossible to see for most of the audience, connected perfectly. I’ve watched the video in slow motion and it does look like the punch snapped into Liston’s chin and reverberated through the back of his neck—the typical makings of a knockout blow.

Life has a tendency of smacking a lot of us on the chin unexpectedly. There’s punches you see coming. And then there’s the ones that catch you surprise. The people around you—friends, family, colleagues, teammates, mortal enemies—might say, “Well, that wasn’t so bad. Pick yourself up, pal,” or “Don’t make a big deal out of it.”  They don’t always say it, but there’s always the ones who just can’t help themselves.

But, human pain doesn’t work that way. Healing doesn’t work that way. Imagine what was going on in Liston’s mind on that canvas. Imagine the days after when all the newspapers and television channels and people on the street were in shock and hurled criticism and abuse his way. Imagine what he thought the ones he loved might think–his children, his wife, his mother.

Our lives are made up of flashes and moments. They coalesce in the end to create the story of our years on this earth. Some of those flashes are heart-shattering. Others joyful. They all have their significance in the end. I want to say we should watch out better for those phantom punches. But, I don’t know we can. Maybe we shouldn’t. I just know that eventually we do get back up again. And we’re different. Different because of how we handled it all.

The Inconspicuous Return

“I’m starting to get the feeling, more and more, to come back…It’s like a knife that I have to keep sharp just in case I ever decide to jump back in the mix…”

Georges St-Pierre

Most comebacks in professional sports are met with terrific fervor. In boxing, the return of Muhammad Ali and later Mike Tyson attracted global attention. When Fedor Emelianenko — The Last Emperor, as he is known in the world of mixed martial arts — declared his comeback for New Years Eve 2015 after a three-year retirement, there was a frenzy over who he would face and if the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) might sign him. For the past two years, there have been murmurs that another sensation, former UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre, might finally return to order to make a second run inside the Octagon and regain his belt.

Despite the passion and excitement generated on most of these occasions, the comebacks have been either short-lived or disappointing. Ali was badly beaten by former training partner Larry Holmes and then lost again to Trevor Berbick before finally hanging up the gloves a few months before his 40th birthday. Tyson was knocked out in his final two fights, looking like a shell of himself and admitting after his loss to Kevin McBride that he didn’t have the guts to stay in boxing anymore. Fedor surprised everyone in his choice to fight an MMA nobody in former professional kickboxer Singh Jaideep and beat him up in an expectedly lopsided win. In his second fight since his un-retirement, he was almost knocked out in the first round by faded Brazilian Fabio Maldonado and won a contested majority decision for a Russian promotion for which Fedor himself picked the judges. Fight fans (and ladies) everywhere are still awaiting the comeback of St-Pierre, with his camp and rivals in search of a big paycheck insinuating he might return for Conor McGregor, Nate Diaz, or Michael Bisping.

Some returns are less heralded and go almost unnoticed by the rest of the world. After being knocked out for a second time by Chuck Liddell in 2006, Randy Couture retired only to return a year later and challenge Tim Sylvia for the heavyweight title. Couture was 46 years old, six inches shorter and more than 40 pounds lighter than Sylvia. But, he dominated the giant man across five rounds to become the oldest UFC champion in history.

With the creation of Dope on the Ropes, I’ve made my fourth or fifth semi-serious run at blogging. The others were as unheralded as it gets. The most popular post on my last blog had 300 reads if I was lucky. But, like a hopeless fighter throwing back wild, blind hooks from the ropes, I’m a relentless one. Join me for the ride. Here goes!

  • Brian Gabriel