Adam Reger | Pittsburgh Writer, Editor, and Teacher

Pittsburgh writer, editor, ghostwriter, and teacher.

Category: Pittsburgh

Morning Fog

It is a foggy morning in Pittsburgh. As is always the case when fog is general across the city, I am reminded of one of my favorite short stories, Tobias Wolff’s “Our Story Begins.” The story’s setting is San Francisco, and the fog is a bit more aggressive than it is here this morning, but what lovely descriptions:

“The fog blew in early again. This was the tenth straight day of it. The waiters and waitresses gathered along the window to watch, and Charlie pushed his cart across the dining room so that he could watch with them as he filled the water glasses. Boats were beating in ahead of the fog, which loomed behind them like a tall, rolling breaker. Gulls glided from the sky to the pylons along the wharf, where they shook out their feathers and rocked from side to side and glared at the tourists passing by.

“The fog covered the stanchions of the bridge. The bridge appeared to be floating free as the fog billowed into the harbor and began to overtake the boats. One by one they were swallowed up in it.”

. . .

“Charlie started home the long way, up Columbus Avenue, because Columbus Avenue had the brightest streetlights. But in this fog the lights were only a presence, a milky blotch here and there in the vapor above. Charlie walked slowly and kept to the walls. He met no one on his way; but once, as he paused to wipe the dampness from his face, he heard strange ticking steps behind him and turned to see a three-legged dog appear out of the mist. It moved past in a series of lurches and was gone. ‘Christ,’ Charlie said. Then he laughed to himself, but the sound was unconvincing and he decided to get off the street for a while.”

Copying out these passages, I was struck first that these aren’t actually flamboyantly beautiful descriptions of fog; second, that they’re sneakier and more effective than that, because what they conjure up is the sensation you get when you’re trapped or enveloped in fog: in the first two paragraphs, Wolff describes a bus boy inside a tourist-trap restaurant as the fog closes in, strangling business for the evening; in the last, the bus boy walks home alone, late, through the fog and the empty streets. The three-legged dog is not Wolff’s usual thing—he’s a more realistic, generally unsentimental writer, not given to quirks or humor other than the dry sort—but here it makes sense: strange things come out of the fog, and everything looks a bit stranger when its context is wiped away. You can read metaphorical significance into the fog, isolating the main character, Charlie, forcing him to confront his own life—but you don’t really need to; it’s fog, it’s San Francisco.

I can remember reading “Our Story Begins” for the first time and getting chills. It was the summer and I was sitting in a laundromat in Philadelphia, waiting for my load of wash to be done. Walking around the city I had picked up a book called Graywolf Annual for some year, maybe 1989 or ’90, in a box of books put out on the curb with a placard reading “Free Books!” There were a number of fantastic stories in that collection—Andre Dubus and Richard Ford were represented, along with Annie Proulx’s “The Half-Skinned Steer”—but “Our Story Begins” was the one that made me put the book down, look around, and feel obscurely that I had been taught something important and at just the right time. I was older than the main character—23 or 24 at that time—but in not so different a place in terms of life and career. In the story, Charlie is revealed to be an aspiring writer who has moved to San Francisco with thoughts of Kerouac, of Allen Ginsberg or Gregory Corso popping into the cafe where he goes to escape the fog; his novel, we’re told, has been returned without comment by all the publishers he’s sent it to—except for one, who’s written “Are you kidding?” across the title page. Without encouragement, friendless, with San Francisco’s long, cold summer wearing him down, Charlie is just on the point of giving up. His encounter in the cafe, listening in on an ambiguous conversation between a married couple and the choir director the wife is having an affair with, sustains Charlie, convincing him to push on a little further by conveying a sense of possibility, of wonder at what the world will turn up next. It was an immensely encouraging idea to read in a story; whether or not any of this happened to Tobias Wolff, it seemed impossible he hadn’t lived some version of this pivotal moment, deciding whether to go on.

I’ve already sort of spoiled the story for you, but below the jump is its conclusion—a big part of why I’ve remembered this story so fondly for so long: Read the rest of this entry »

Brief Menu Item Reveals Inescapability of Steelers Football in Pittsburgh

From the weekly menu of Zenith, a great vegetarian-restaurant-cum-vintage-store in the south side neighborhood of Pittsburgh:

POLAMALU (need you to play) WRAP

BLACK BEANS, RICE, PINEAPPLE, YELLOW  PEPPERS, COCONUT AND ONIONS IN A SPICY TROPICAL SAUCE WRAPPED IN A FLOUR TORTILLA

If this were just “Polamalu Wrap,” you could suspect the scrawny vegetarians at Zenith of pandering to Pittsburgh’s well-known obsession with its NFL franchise, the Pittsburgh Steelers. The revealing touch here is the parenthetical plea to Troy Polamalu, the Steelers’ otherworldly, locally beloved free safety, to get back in the game. (If you want to know why Polamalu is beloved, among other reasons, check out either one of these videos of him diving into the crowd during the Steelers’ 2005-06 and 2008-09 Super Bowl victory parades.)

If a Washington, DC vegetarian-restaurant-cum-vintage-store served the “Orakpo Wrap,” I’d similarly suspect those pale, feckless herbivores of pandering to that town’s football crowd. But if they served the “Orakpo (Really Going to Miss You) Wrap,” I’d be impressed, as I am in the case of the Polamalu Wrap, and surprised. You just don’t expect the same level of casual football knowledge among residents in other cities. Here, it’s sort of de rigeur. (Orakpo, by the way, is Brian Orakpo, linebacker of the Washington Totally Racist Team Name. You may recognize the name from his appearances alongside a caveman in these Geico commercials. He was injured this past week and will miss the rest of the season due to a torn pectoral muscle. I’d never cheer anyone’s getting injured but Washington fans’ loss is the Philadelphia Eagles’ gain.)

Steelers fanship in Pittsburgh is serious and widespread enough that it’s spawned a sort of backlash contingent of people who sniff and tell you, in the same tone they might use to inform you that they never watch television, and in fact don’t own a television set at all, that they don’t follow the Steelers, or football in general. Among fans of other teams, too, there’s a sort of common response of despising the Steelers and rooting against them. (A few weekends ago I was in Cleveland for the Eagles’ home opener against the Cleveland Browns. On the way out of the game there was some mostly calm discussion between Browns fans and Eagles fans (who were, in total, surprisingly numerous there in (the refreshingly named) Cleveland Browns Stadium), and it turned out one gnarled, hard-living couple in Eagles jerseys was from Pittsburgh. “We hate the Steelers, though,” the man said hastily to a guy in a Browns jerseys. His female companion turned and nodded that this was so. When they got outside, the two men shook hands and the Eagles fan, in parting, raised a fist and said, “Let’s both beat the Steelers this year” and they were joined in solidarity re: beating the Steelers. (This year teams in the NFC East play those in the AFC North, so the Eagles and Browns will indeed both be playing the Steelers.))

More telling, though, is the number of people you’ll find in the supermarket during Steelers games (which I watch part of, usually; if I’ve gone through the drama, the heartache and/or euphoria, of a Philadelphia Eagles game, I have no more patience or emotional energy to then watch the Steelers as well). You would think that Giant Eagle would be a ghost town during the game, but enough people have made the same simple mental calculation—All those sheep will be inside, glued to the tube, rooting for their ‘Stillers,’ drinking their ‘Ahrn City,’ etc., I’ll have the run of the place!—that it’s often no less crowded than it is on a Saturday morning, or midway through the evening on a weeknight.

The backlashers, people who hate the Steelers or who are indifferent but nevertheless organize their Sundays around the team, have always seemed to me to be caught in a simple binary trap: love the Steelers or hate them, they still seem to know exactly when the game is on, and to plan accordingly. Steelers football is just kind of the water you swim in in Pittsburgh, which is a crucial difference between the sports culture here versus nearly anywhere else.

Review of “Abbott Awaits” at Hot Metal Bridge

I wrote a book review of Chris Bachelder’s Abbott Awaits and it’s up at Hot Metal Bridge (which is also up to lots this summer: you should check out the winners of their fiction and non-fiction contests).

Shorter review of Abbott Awaits: it’s good. Oh man, it is really good. Probably my favorite novel this year, and up there for the past five years. I like Bachelder’s stuff a lot: U.S.! and, to a lesser extent, Bear v. Shark, are precisely written, fun, and thoughtful books. But Abbott Awaits is a leap into a new category for Bachelder. I explain and justify all of this in the review, so rather than babbling more about how much I liked the book, go check it out.

(Also, just read as implied here notes of embarrassment and apology over having not updated the blog in about two months. As it happens, I’ve been busy, the sort of busy where there’s plenty to report but little time or inclination to report it. I wish I could say it will be the last time, but who knows. Anyway, look for more frequent dispatches in the near term.)

New Story

I have a piece of flash fiction up over at Prick of the Spindle, a great online lit mag publishing lots of interesting fiction, non-fiction, interviews, and (I will have to take others’ word on this) poetry. My story is called “Root Canal” and is about, yes, a time I had a root canal. It’s very strongly connected, in my mind, to my first year in Pittsburgh. Not only did I have the aforementioned root canal then, but the other thing in the story—a noisy upstairs neighbor—was also a big factor in my life. Reading over it now really takes me back to those heady days in Pittsburgh’s Greenfield neighborhood. Anyway, I’m quite proud of it and excited to be published in Prick of the Spindle.

Notes on “The Next Three Days”

After missing it in theaters and taking my sweet time about having Netflix send me a copy, this weekend I finally checked out The Next Three Days, the Russell Crowe film that shot in Pittsburgh over the summer and fall of 2009. I felt compelled to watch it—and guilty that I so far hadn’t—because my brother worked on the film as a locations assistant, crashing on my futon for at least part of his stay in Pittsburgh.

I can’t really offer a comprehensive review of the film. Read the rest of this entry »

AWP Post-Mortem: What Was That?

This past weekend I went to the annual conference of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP, though obviously it would more accurately be “AWWP”) in Washington, DC. It was fun. I got to see some great writers read, among them Stephen Elliott, Nick Flynn, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Amy Hempel, and Gary Shtyengart. I got a good, large dose of Richard Bausch, who is as entertaining, wise, and funny in person as are his stories. (Actually, he’s way funnier than his stories, which rarely “work blue,” in contrast to the man.) And I dropped in on a couple panels preoccupied with my own preoccupation, making a living as a writer (while not giving up on my personal, creative work).

But as I made my way back to Pittsburgh, the dominant feeling was something like “So that was AWP.” Kind of a flat feeling, like “Why did I do that again?” My hope for the conference was that I’d come out of it hungry to write, inspired by what I’d seen and heard. And while that sort of happened, to a greater extent, it didn’t.

I’d been to AWP once before, three years ago when it was held in New York. But in some ways I considered this my first conference because in New York I slept on a friend’s air mattress up in Queens, and it seemed that my days divided neatly into AWP Time and Friend Time. AWP Time featured panels and perusing the tables at the Bookfair. Friend Time began with a subway ride north, and was centered more on bars and strip clubs, with not as much overlap between the two as you might expect. In the time between conferences, I’d come to understand that a lot of AWP’s value stemmed from networking, and that a lot of that was done outside of panels and the Bookfair, at off-site events and over drinks (though never, that I’ve heard, at off-site events hosted by strip clubs, or over watered-down strip-club drinks).

My first reaction to the “flat” feeling mentioned above was that the trip was a waste of money and time (during which I got zero writing done, it bears mentioning). I opined to my traveling companion that it would have been better to do a writer’s retreat kind of deal, where a part of each day was spent actually writing.

That’s probably true, but in the fullness of time—two days later—I think that such a reaction misunderstands AWP’s purpose. I have a friend from grad school whose AWP schedule was positively packed, and the reason is that he attended a few of those writer’s-retreat deals—Breadloaf, Sewanee—and met a lot of people there. AWP’s function seems more to refresh those connections.

And/or to solidify them. My roommate, Sal “Chugg-a-Lugg” Pane, knows a lot of literary people only by way of the internet. It was interesting to see him talking with people in person whom he’s “known” for some time, but never actually met. (These observations also served to bring home the fact that a lot of literary people are quite awkward in person.)

These are incomplete thoughts, but when an experience feels flat or vaguely unsatisfying, it’s usually useful to think about why that is, and whether or not you’re “doing it” wrong. (Heh, heh.) I didn’t do AWP wrong, exactly, but it was less than it could have been. The way to do it, it seems to me, is to use AWP as a meeting space for old friends, understanding that it’s not going to help your writing transcend previous limitations, but, if done correctly, it might help you renew your commitment to the writing life.

Seemingly Unrelated Addendum: The writer Pam Parker (whose blog, Finding Meaning with Words, is well worth your time), is a Green Bay Packers fan and jokingly suggested some kind of wager between the two of us (as the Packers just played the Pittsburgh Steelers, my local team, in Super Bowl XLV). Nothing came of it, but in the spirit of friendly sports-wagering between writers, I thought I should acknowledge this “rivalry” and give Pam a small shout-out for having backed the winning team. Congratulations to the Packers, who also mowed down my real team, the Philadelphia Eagles, en route to becoming champs.

(This addendum is related, in case you are wondering (and still reading), because the Super Bowl was the culmination of my long, eventful weekend—i.e., I was home for maybe 90 minutes before kickoff—and thus the conference and the game are tightly linked in my mind.)

Pittsburgh’s Loss

Sad news (and old news, apparently). The Gist Street Reading Series has concluded its final season. I laded on the praise and affection a while ago; now it reads like an elegy. Ah, sad times for Pittsburgh’s literary scene. Gist Street was very much its crown jewel.

Marathon training begins

Speaking of marathon running (as a metaphor for writing), my training regimen for the 2011 Pittsburgh Marathon kicked off last Tuesday evening. I’m following this Runner’s World plan, which served me well last time. It’s still the “beginner’s” plan, but my intention is to replace the uphill runs (usually 4-milers that include a certain portion to be run uphill) with tempo runs (runs where you go at a faster-than-comfortable pace for a certain amount of time). My main concern is increasing my speed, not contending with hills (of which there are surprisingly few in the Pittsburgh course).

As I set out, only 12 miles into what will add up to around 300-400 miles of training runs (Oh God.), I’m optimistic about dropping my time by another 10+ minutes. I plan to cross-train more aggressively this time around. For a start, I expect to swim more consistently than during my Philadelphia marathon training, when I took it up more than halfway through my regimen. Perhaps more promisingly, I’ve enrolled in a cross-training program, offered by (apparently famous?) orthopedic surgeon Dr. Vonda Wright and sanctioned by the Pittsburgh Marathon. It begins next month, but I attended an orientation session that I found grueling even in its abbreviated form. The emphasis is on building the core muscles, strengthening both the abdominal and back muscles, and paying some attention to the arms as well. It should be a great addition to my training, not least of all because it’ll be an indoor workout during the worst of the Pittsburgh winter (which, so far, has been nasty).

Sad (Book-Related) News

Joseph-Beth Booksellers, a real high point in the life of Pittsburgh’s literary scene, is closing this weekend. Darn this rough economy!

They moved from a big, lovely two-story space (with escalators and a weird, tiny tranquility fountain sort of thing) to a more cramped space earlier in the year, but still had a great selection, at least in the fiction section and, especially, in the number of literary magazines they carried. I special-ordered Jack Pendarvis’s Awesome one time and the clerk advised me that if it came in and I decided I didn’t want it, that was fine. Some may see that as a lack of business acumen, but I was impressed by the book-first attitude evinced by that policy.

On a note that is either more positive or slightly morbid, though, they are having a great sale—40 percent off everything—until they close on November 14th.

Marathon Homestretch

Over the weekend, I put in my longest training run: 20 miles. It was a good, good feeling to hit the showers after that one, knowing I’d reached the pinnacle and my running would now begin slacking off in preparation for race day, November 21. After the rough, dehydrating experience of running 18 miles the previous Sunday, I was smart enough to bring two little bottles of water with me, plus a packet of GU Energy Gel. It made all the difference in the world. As much as I’d like to think I’m tough enough to go without, the difference between absorbing no calories during a long run and taking in 90 calories is substantial. (An aside re: GU: the gel, while restorative during runs, is kind of gross. Decidedly awesome, on the other hand, are GU Chomps, which taste and go down the gullet like the fruit snacks I so loved as a boy.) And the difference between being totally dried out after a run and being pretty dried out, but not completely, is maybe even more notable. My legs were sore, and I was obliged to take a nap, but I did not feel as drained and just overall zonked out, the way I often do after these long runs. I’d thought those feelings were just inherent to running 14+ miles in one go, but apparently I could have avoided some of these lost Sunday afternoons had I but planned a bit better.

All that is sort of a prelude to say that I faked myself out somewhat and the real pinnacle of my training came last night. Thursday-night runs have slowly been ramping up throughout training, from 5 to 6, etc., and jumping up to 10 last week. I think I knew this already, but last night’s run was also a 10-miler. It sounds like a piece of cake, if one has recently conquered a 20-miler.

Read the rest of this entry »