Chuck Culpepper is the writer I aspire to be.
First, he’s an amazing wordsmith. Just insanely gifted, and his work for Sports On Earth is must-read material. Second, he lives life with an uncommon vigor and passion. If there’s a place to go, and a story to be written—Chuck’s off. Bag packed—gone. Third, Chuck is gay. Which, in and of itself, isn’t so unique. But when, leading up to last year’s Super Bowl, he wrote a column about sexuality, it was courage and pride personified.
One can follow Chuck on Twitter here, and do yourself a big favor and start reading his stuff. Ain’t many doing it better.
Yo Chuck, break it off on The Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: Well, Chuck, I have to start with this: Last February, while covering the lead-up to the Super Bowl, you came out to readers with the line, “I am that exotic creature, a gay male sportswriter.” I obviously knew you were gay, lots of writers knew you were gay. But I’m guessing most athletes didn’t, and most readers didn’t. What convinced you to take that step? How nervous or uncomfortable was it? And what, ultimately, was the response?
CHUCK CULPEPPER: I wish I’d done it years ago, but I went a long time with a fear of the unknown that nowadays strikes me as unacceptable in myself, and then from 2006-12 I lived abroad (London, Paris, Abu Dhabi, Dubai) and lacked the forum for it. I did mention it in my U.K.-based soccer book in 2008, but in the acknowledgments, not the text, per the sage advice of a New York agent named Susan Raihofer who said, “Write one book at a time.”
For me, a crucial component of life is the gradual shedding of fear, and while I’m generally unforgiving of myself – wish I were more this, wish I were more that – I reckon the best thing I could say for myself is I’ve shed some fears along the way. That said, pertaining to homosexuality, the United States to which I returned in 2012 had zoomed improbably from the United States I departed into exile on Virgin Atlantic Flight 46 on 2/14/06 (Seat 55-K). In that sense, I would accuse myself of tardiness and cowardice in writing such a column only in February 2013. The landscape was so much smoother by the time I got to it.
By the time I did get to it, any discomfort about it had shrunk to minuscule, and I had just spent a lot of time in Boston with a friend I am so lucky to know, Steve Buckley, Boston sports-media superduperstar. I had ridden with him to Foxboro for the Ravens-Patriots AFC Championship Game, the game that led unexpectedly to the brief conversation with the Ravens’ Brendon Ayanbadejo, which prompted the sudden decision to write the column. Steve had written his similar column in January 2011, and he had stressed to me that he had heard from so many people who said it had helped them. If there was one kid out there who happened upon it and derived even a jot of sustenance from it, then there’s a responsibility to write it, and so on.
Athletes didn’t factor into my decision as much as for Steve. He’s a Boston mainstay in a city he cherishes. I’m a nomad who has ended up living, by chance, in 12 cities since college. He has a marvelous home life, with three chocolate Labrador retrievers he shares with an excellent next-door neighbor. I once traveled so protractedly that in my apartment, a cactus died. He appears regularly amid certain teams. I hopscotch.
He got overwhelmingly positive response as did I. In fact, I’m floored at the bullet-train change in the national feelings on the issue. I never expected to live in this tone of country. I would say the leading complaint you get nowadays is that some are tired of hearing about the issue, but in a free society, we’re all tired of hearing about something. Just for starters, I’m tired of hearing about Justin Bieber.
J.P.: I wanna ask you something that’s gonna sound silly, but I’m being quite serious: As a writer, how do you stay sane? I always think I’m dying of some awful disease, always lose myself in subjects, often feel isolated and lonely. So, Chuck, how have you not lost your mind? Or have you?
C.C.: I feel like I have lost that fight already to some degree. Often the battle with the self is just wretched. At the same time, I want to keep the battle going, and I never want to assume I’m any good. I think you drift into trouble once you assume you’re any good. It’s important to have benign misery.
J.P.: I’ve read your bio, obviously I’ve read tons of your stuff. But how did this writing thing all begin for you? When did you first catch the buzz? What was your career path from there (wherever that is) to here?
C.C.: I have wanted to be a sportswriter or broadcaster since age 8 or 9, when I saw the words and datelines of George McClelland and others in the Virginian-Pilot. I stated the career wish in a school newspaper at age 11. I remember giving my brother 50 cents to go get the newspaper from the box down the sidewalk at the street on a really cold day, and to this day his money-management skills remain tremendous while mine are atrocious. Then, when I was 14, in Suffolk, Va., we had neighbors and great friends the Smiths, and Ed Smith was-and-is one of those vivid characters with big personality and a penchant for rare (and incorrigible) gab. He was in the peanut business in our self-proclaimed “Peanut Capital of the World,” but somehow he knew someone who connected me with the Suffolk Sun, a twice-weekly Suffolk-based tabloid inside the Norfolk-based Virginian-Pilot.
At 14, I started writing weekly roundups of the Bennett’s Creek Little League, mostly just recounting what had happened on the previous Saturday, including the pitching and hitting performances of friends, a raging conflict of interest. At 15, I once wrote a game story about a game in which I had participated and in which I had struck a rolling but persevering single up the middle to drive in the first run. The final score was 9-4, I think, so I could omit that single plus any reference to myself without leaving any catastrophic reporting hole. Furthering the journalistic sins, my coach that night (and for several years) happened to be my own father, Dick Culpepper, who one season later would pilot to prominence the once-moribund Tigers of the Bennett’s Creek minor league (ages 8 and 9), a feat of painstaking coaching as good as any I’ve seen.
Through high school, I would walk the sidelines on Friday nights at football games, often at my own school in another reprehensible conflict, but often at other schools in the area. At the University of Virginia, I helped cover the Ralph Sampson years for The Cavalier Daily, as well as covering a gem of a human coaching women’s basketball, Deb Ryan, plus some ne’er-do-well soccer coach named Bruce Arena. Two years after college, and after an eight-month New York stint that included ad-agency work and the sighting of a great many downtown 3 a.m.’s, I finally fulfilled a possibility we Americans are so lucky to have: I drove across the free and vast country, alone, Virginia to California, felt the whole big continent roll under my tires. It remains thrilling. The sunflowers in Kansas!
From there, it has gone through two newspaper carcasses (Los Angeles Herald Examiner, The National Sports Daily), two The Nationals (one in the U.S., one in Abu Dhabi), one state that, for me, qualifies as its own region (Kentucky), one Oregonian, one great job where I’d hail a cab in Times Square on Saturday mornings and wind up in, say, Auburn (Newsday), one Randy Harvey, who gave me the astounding privilege of corresponding from London for the Los Angeles Times. It has gone Los Angeles, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Lexington (Ky.), Portland (Ore.) with a ton of Seattle mixed in, New York, London, four months of Paris, New York again, Abu Dhabi/Dubai and now just drifting merrily for Sports On Earth. And the wandering has fomented a terrible craving to wander more: In August and September, they sent Sports On Earth around the world in 14 days (eight cities), and right about now I’m answering some of these questions aboard a magnificent Korean Air Airbus 380-800 screaming quietly above Canada toward the International Date Line toward Seoul, toward finding Manny Pacquiao in the southern Philippines. I just relish this kind of thing, probably still because I came from a small town and can’t believe it’s true.
J.P.: How do you approach a long story? I know this varies from piece-to-piece, obviously, but what’s your soup-and-nuts approach?
C.C.: Yellow legal pads. I tend to have oodles of them. When the time comes for the hardest stage, the long slog back through the notes and quotes gathered, I take each source and give them separate yellow-legal-pad pages with their particular quotes. This can take two or three or four or five hours, but it helps me semi-organize my naturally inefficient brain.
J.P.: You took your writing talents to the United Arab Emirates several years ago. And while we’ve chatted about it via Facebook, I have no fucking idea why you were there. So, Chuck, why? And what was it like?
C.C.: I needed a job in 2010, and thank goodness I needed a job in 2010, for what a phenomenal adventure. By then, I had shed many of my fears about frontiers, and in fact had become almost addicted to frontiers. So by then in life it had become a little bit of ecstasy to board a jet at JFK for a direct flight to Abu Dhabi, a place I’d never been, in a region I’d never visited, with only two suitcases of stuff in the plane belly. (I’ve come to loathe stuff. I want less stuff.) As we went over Ukraine and Iraq and beside Kuwait down toward night in Abu Dhabi – that Etihad plane even had a window in the loo – I felt thrilled that in life my curiosity finally had trumped my fear.
I loved just about the whole two-year thing, even as there’s guilt intertwined with that because of the grim labor situation for guest workers, most hailing from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Philippines, some of whom became friends, and one of whom (Filipino) I roomed with for seven months in Dubai, a real education about this world. (It’s a f—— hard world.)
I loved everything from the sports editor to the deputy sports editor to the cohorts to the new Emirati and Arab and Indian friends to the occasional sights of camels peeking out of trucks on highways to interviews with Arab female athletes, unfailingly inspiring. I loved sitting up half the night with two souls I treasure, a married couple, he and she, Osman and Anisa, both sports journalists, Pakistani and Indian, listening to them talk about life in Karachi or the natures of Pakistan and India. I also believe we need Osman and Anisa in the United States, if they’re interested, to converse with as many Americans as possible.
I had few moments of loneliness, and certainly none of fear, as Abu Dhabi and Dubai are safer than anywhere I have lived, an idea Americans, unacceptably, don’t grasp. (We should know the world better, period.) There were edifying discussions every day if you wanted to have them. A Syrian man gave me, through words and smartphone video, a harrowing sense of the bleakness that has visited the lives of his family and friends inside the country, not to mention the devastating stress on himself from afar. (The gym was the only way he could sort of cope, so his chest kept getting more impressive.) An Iranian man with his wife in the Abu Dhabi airport learned I’m American, hugged me, said we should be friends and handed me a date (fruit). As South Asians often take care of their parents to the point of co-habitation after growing up, a Pakistani man on a bus asked me – and you can see how he might wonder about this – if, once Americans have grown up to adulthood, we ever see our parents again. (Answer: “Oh, yes. Some of us even enjoy it.”) In a gay club (not an official one, and no kissing, of course), I saw Egyptian and Lebanese and Syrian young men singing every word, in English, to Lady Gaga, and while I wished the music could change somewhere in the 24 time zones just for variety, this was amazing. I made a friend who is a Nepalese soldier. I mean, this goes on and on and on and on, to the point of embarrassment at my own wonder.
Don’t get me started.
And then, I fell crazy-in-love with surrounding myself with people unlike myself, with the whole frontier of that. I love walking, and on some evenings in Abu Dhabi, I’d walk through sidewalks filled with Pakistani men, just out in the night air after work, many of them staring at this strange creature with light hair and blue eyes, some smiling and waving insecurely as if timid to greet. I went to Mumbai – a three-hour flight – and people just talked to me all through the days, whether it was three 15-year-old boys plopping down next to me on the promenade near the Indian Ocean to ask me about New York, or two men walking by and snapping photos of my weird and pasty face, causing laughter nearby.
I used to feel nervous in new places; now I revel in the mystery. A given place never has the same allure as at first sight.
And the assignments, I mean, come on: the northern Philippines to watch Pacquiao train in 2011, Qatar (with gorgeous souk) for the 2011 Asian Cup soccer, cricket matches in Abu Dhabi with ticket-less Pakistani fans standing outside the stadium just to be there, the round-the-world Volvo Ocean Race (sailing) with stops in Spain, Cape Town, the Chinese island of Sanya, Auckland, Miami, Lisbon, hearing the first Zhosa I ever heard in Cape Town . . .
And finally (sorry for length), as for an American in the Middle East, I’d note three crucial lessons:
1. The overwhelming majority of people in the world are just trying to get through the day;
2. We’re basically well-liked (with Hollywood a big factor), and guest workers comment on how amiable we are compared with certain other nationalities, and;
3. In the national Narcissism we’d be wise to jettison especially at this point in history, we don’t realize that people don’t spend nearly as much time thinking about us as we think they do (a point stressed beautifully by the blogger Mark Manson)
J.P.: In 2008 you wrote a book, “Bloody Confused! A Clueless American Sportswriter Seeks Solace In English Soccer.” A. Why, dear God, did you decide to write a book? B. Why THAT book? C. Looking back, how do you feel about the book-writing process, compared to magazine, web, newspaper pieces?
C.C.: A. I always did want to write a book. B. I was fresh in London in exile with no job, so David Black, your agent (for the big projects) and mine (for less-big projects) steered me to the concept. He stressed that the things an American might learn following English soccer could fit into a narrative, which spurred the idea of choosing a club and following it for a season. C. To my surprise, I adored the process and yearn to do it again but keep rummaging around for a topic.
J.P.: We know print newspapers are dying. Actually, pretty much dead. When asked, would you still encourage young scribes to enter the field? Why or why not? And what advice would you offer?
C.C.: For me, the key word in life should always be “adventure,” so I’d never discourage anybody young from trying anything. And life has made me a big believer in losing everything and starting again, so I would stress that if it wound up not working, that’s far from the end. You’ve still gained something for wherever you veer. My great friend Doug Cress never failed as a sportswriter or feature writer, but he left it and works now at the United Nations Great Apes Survival Partnership in Nairobi, Kenya. I bring that up to say that sometimes I think people don’t realize what’s possible, especially if you don’t limit yourself geographically.
J.P.: Greatest moment of your journalism career?
C.C.: I think of the dreamlike 1992 Barcelona Opening Ceremony with the archer Antonio Rebollo lighting the torch from afar, Rulon Gardner’s monumental wrestling upset in Sydney, Mike Jones’ tackle at the 1-yard line for the Rams against the Titans in Atlanta and the goose-bumpy Champs Elysees the night the French won the World Cup, but really it’s Sunday afternoon, 12/11/11.
That day, I jumped off the back of a raging sailboat into the frigid South Atlantic Ocean off Cape Town, the celestial Table Mountain in view. I was in the water for about 30 entire seconds, but what exhilaration.
As the Volvo Ocean Race boats leave one port for the several-week sail to the next, they often invite guests who then jump off the back as the boat whisks toward the barren ocean. At the first stop in Alicante, Spain, in November 2011, the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing boat invited Zinedine Zidane, who did a backflip into the Mediterranean. At the third stop, there were two famous English cricketers whom I loathed for their shark-less, warm-water, weenie plunges in bad-picnic shorts. But at the second stop in Cape Town, there were no celebrities, so about two hours before departure they invited me so that I could write about the experience. I knew it was a ritual, and the sailing people were really blasé about it as no one had ever wound up deceased, but I was nervous to distraction. I barely could focus on any conversation.
First, I rode along on the back of the boat for about an hour as it performed competitive maneuvers within viewing distance of the shore. This closeup gave me even greater respect for these – yes, this is the right word – athletes. The sailors, mostly Kiwis and Brits, kidded me about the regional shark infestation. I didn’t worry about sharks, but I did worry about wetsuit malfunction and the unknown. Eventually the skipper, the English two-time Olympic silver medalist Ian Walker, said, “Chuck, your time is up.” First, I got my shoe caught in the railing on the stern, then I slowly took a step off into the humongous water, seeing the mountain in the background as I descended. I just could not believe this . . . just . . . could . . . not . . . believe . . . this.
I hit the water, and it was hypothermic as promised – you don’t see South Africans swimming even at the beaches – but the wetsuit inflated per always, and a R.I.B. (rigid inflatable boat) with Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing team members came by and hauled me in within half a minute which, when you think of all of it, is ludicrous and dubious, but so very thrilling.
J.P: Lowest moment of your journalism career?
C.C: I longed all along to get to New York and live on a high floor, then I got the chance in 2002, lived on a 39th floor with a great-great job at Newsday. (It was something, climbing 38 flights of stairs, thrice, during that blackout of August 2003. Good thing my mother has a fondness for giving me flashlights.) So then, I had to leave all of it in early 2006 because my Other Half is foreign (Colombian), and because we had no U.S. immigration rights to sponsor the foreign partner for residence the way an opposite-sex couple would, and because you should always, always choose people over things, right? We went into exile in London, and the perma-clouds were brutal on him, and I lost just about everything including my country – and you really don’t realize the many layers of that until it happens. But then I get to this part: That exile, an excruciating sideswipe in life, still fueled every last adventure that has followed. I’m not sure I’d trade it anymore, so I’m not sure that constitutes a low. Isn’t that the funny thing about lows?
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH CHUCK CULPEPPER:
• If someone’s going to read one thing you’ve written, what should it be?: Sheesh. I think of two stories I did on the Pacific Lutheran coach Frosty Westering, one a column upon his death last April, but the first thing that popped to mind was that as the Red Sox won in 2004, I was in Boston, and Newsday had assigned me to Red Sox fans all that season and October. In the days after the last out happened in St. Louis, I combed Globe and Herald obituaries to find Red Sox fans who had lived normal American life spans but had died that summer or fall before seeing the ultimate, a fate I deemed howlingly cruel. I contacted the relatives or co-workers of three. A man named Chuck Houston, who had just lost his Red Sox-faithful mother in late September at age 76, told of standing in a bar as Foulke flipped to Mientkiewicz for that last out, and I still get chills thinking about Mr. Houston’s reaction. All that said, I still want to change the lead. It needs an explanatory paragraph at the top. I was in a hurry. This devastates me.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Harry Reid, Christopher Hitchens, Ron Kittle, wicker, Pebbles Flintstone, iced coffee, lime, Mormon missions, the designated hitter, Sports Illustrated, Victoria’s Secret, Axl Rose, Mike Lupica: Hitchens, SI, Lupica, lime, Victoria’s, Kittle, Rose, Reid, DH, Mormon missions, Pebbles, iced coffee.
• Odds, in your mind, there’s life after death?: It changes day-to-day, but today I’ll go with 50-1.
• Would you rather have a dime-sized hole drilled in our skull (you’ll live, but no numbing agent during the procedure) or spend a year as Mitt Romney’s publicist?: Romney’s publicist. Adventure.
• Celine Dion calls – she offers $800,000 to write her memoir, but you have to move to Las Vegas for two years and also work as her dog Muffy’s personal groomer. You in?: As long as I don’t have to listen to the music, yes. Adventure.
• If you had the chance, one question you’d ask Lam Jones right now: “If you don’t mind, please tell of a New York night in the wild, early 1980s, sparing no details, and then peg where that kind of story fits into your consciousness by now.”
• Five greatest journalists of your lifetime: I’d have about 200 in my top five, many never famous and some I’ve never heard of.
• Biggest jerk athlete you’ve ever dealt with?: I’ve run across so few jerks doing this, and this guy actually wasn’t a jerk, but he hated talking about himself, so when I asked him about himself one day after a game at Wrigley Field, he got really surly with me, and it really startled me and threw me off, much more than it should have except that it was very early in my career. Ryne Sandberg.
• Best piece of advice you’ve ever received?: I guess we all received this advice, but it’s Eleanor Roosevelt: “Do one thing every day that scares you.”
• Master’s degree in journalism – good idea? Bad idea? Why?: Why not? If you’re really into it, it could be an adventure. We’re almost to the International Date Line, and I want to look out the window and see if it’s a black stripe as indicated on the map.