David Gessner is an American essayist, memoirist, nature writer, editor, and cartoonist. Gessner was born in Boston, Massachusetts, and grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts.
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Hi Reddit! I am David Gessner @BDsCocktailHour, creative writing professor at the University of North Carolina. My new book Ultimate Glory is the story of a life-long obsession with Ultimate Frisbee, and the early glory days with players like Kenny Dobyns, Steve Mooney, Tom Kennedy, and David Barkan. I'm here to talk about the primal feeling of playing http://skydmagazine.com/2017/05/that-primal-feeling/ and how a guy who threw everything into the game became an award-winning writer
What made you fall in love with ultimate Frisbee?
Physics. The hovering. It's why the game will eventually be big, even it takes another hundred years. the cliche is that Bird and Magic made the NBA great but I think it was moments. And ultimate, the diving and skying while the disc seems to wait, are the best things about the game. Love of throwing came later.......Less succinctly: My immersion in the sport began on that same field during my freshman year. Thanks to Stuart, I came back to the next practice. And the next. Then, before I knew it, I was in a van full of teammates on the Maine Turnpike headed to an Ultimate tournament at Bates College in Lewiston. The tournament, for me the first of hundreds, had a carnival atmosphere as a dozen teams or so spread out over several fields. My memories of that trip are vague but I know I played barefoot, as did more than a few players on other teams. And I know there was a keg in the middle of the fields that I suckled on between and sometimes during games. It was after drinking that I loosened up, on the field at least since off it I was still too shy to talk to my teammates. But with the beer in me I did something that came naturally: I ran deep toward the endzone. We were going up against a team where no one played barefoot and where, unlike ours, there were no women on the roster. The players seemed tall and collegiate and un-hippiesh and athletic, and they were thrashing us. At the time I had no way of knowing that Ultimate was in a kind of nether region, a place in between. The days of the long-hairs and barefoot players and informally co-ed teams were at that moment dying and something more serious and competitive and cleat-wearing was emerging.
But I was still barefoot and now I was running toward the endzone and one of my teammates was throwing it--what the hell? he must have thought, since we were getting creamed by these jocks anyway--and then the disc was floating up there lost in the sun and two of the jocky cleated guys were closing in on me and they were sure they had it and you could almost see them snickering but suddenly I wasn’t thinking or worrying like I did back in my normal life at school but instead I was seeing the Frisbee clearly, or rather seeing the spinning edge of the Frisbee, and I was jumping and going after it and grabbing it tight and then I had it in one hand and I was landing with my bare feet in the endzone and my teammates were rushing down the field and out from the sidelines and slapping me on the back and hooting and congratulating me.
How did I feel? I felt excited, I felt proud. Maybe I even felt a little loved.
And that moment, that catch, was it. The exact second my addiction began.
Former Ultimate player here. I have recently watched a few "top level" Ultimate games and I have been surprised to find Ultimate is not a very good spectator sport. Without the personal connection to players on the field, I have not found the games to be compelling to watch. What are your thoughts on Ultimate as a spectator sport?
I have been thinking about this a lot after watching nationals last weekend. It seems to me that all the dumping and swinging of the disc make the game kind of dull. I would like a backcourt line or something like it to keep the game pushing forward. For me it is the diving and jumping that make it fun. On the other hand, I think it is a lot more interesting to watch than lacrosse and softball, which were the other sports on ESPNU last weekend.
Your sport before ultimate ..?
Great question. I played basketball, tennis and some football. I loved football as a kid and played in high school but I also read too much dostovesky and got stoned which didn't go well with football. I was mvp of my tennis team senior year but far from the best player.
Do you like how in Tennis Love means nothing?
Mr. Gessner,Do you have any Athletes on any of Tarheels' sports teams in your Creative writing classes currently or in the past? If so, what did they think about your book?
You know, I am actually a professor at UNCW, not UNC. That would be the same UNCW that came back against UNC in the semis last Saturday night. I actually had no idea where Wilmington was before I moved here. But my last year at Nationals, 1996, we played a team called The Port City Slickers,--they were to be polite, a bit dirty--and it turned out that the Port City was Wilmington (where I have now lived for 14 years.) Another irony: Port City modeled itself on the New York, New York team that always beat my Boston team....
What's your best David Barkan story?
Ah, there are so many. But maybe it's just the touching song we sang each other at his wedding (not to me). "I Got You Dave." A great relatively young ultimate player was recently telling me that Barkan was always consistently good but never great. I laughed. He was fucking great when he was young.
I think I first became familiar with your work through an essay you wrote that might have appeared in The Sun, or one of those other reader-oriented magazines, where you lamented the construction of a larger house on property adjacent to your family's home on Cape Cod. Land you had roamed for years as a child, and land spiritually, you considered to be your own. I get it, your position was as old as time, as old as the native American's, and as old as your orinonal neighbors may have felt when your house went up. So here's my question: one of the themes you returned to at least once in that essay was whether or not you would have a beer with your new neighbor. I was a little concerned (in your essay) you seem to equate friendship with alcohol, can you comment?
You are accurate. I equate friendship with alcohol.
I am actually going to get a beer right now.
I would like to see a combination of a "shot clock" (as in basketball) and "offsides" (as in hockey). This would force aggressive movement of the disc down the field, while minimizing the "oh crap running out of time" hucks.
Those are the best hucks.
I thought it was pretty exciting. Especially Saturday night. The wind helps. Last year's finals (Might Harvard-Minni) were tough becuase there was not wind and no turns.
Who do ypu think is a better spokesperson for disc sports? Mr Dobbyns or Mr Harvey J Kukuk?
I think I am the ideal spokesman. Though I did a radio show last week where a kid called in and told me I was making ultimate seem like a stoner sport......
Have you ever tried to get Nina to change her name to Brandy?
On our wedding night.
How do you think the top players of today compare to the top players of the 1980s?
Do you mean to players in 1981 and 82 or in 1983?
Non joke answer: they are a lot faster and as your old pal DB said to me recently, speed kills. Sorry Dude.
I just graduated from UNC last year, that's so cool! Did not know we had an ultimate professor or I would have signed up for your class. :) Do you still play? You should come out to our pickup games (tues/thurs 9pm on ehringhaus) sometime!
My question is about the nationals events that you attended, both college with Colorado and club with Boston. Have you visited or seen nationals in recent years? What were those events like compared to today? How were they different or similar?
Hey there. We should have added the W at the end of UNC, but I will be reading at the Regulator in Raleigh next wed night. Tell your pickup friend to come. Here is what I wrote in the book about the differences when I went back to Nationals two years ago: When I first walked onto the fields, after showing my press pass to the cop at the stadium gate, I was struck by how clean everything was. There was a grubbiness to Ultimate in my era, an era not just of gray cotton sweats and cases of beer on the sidelines but of lots of dirt and blood on fields that sometimes looked like a battle scene in Game of Thrones. There was still blood and beer, though the latter was sold at a concession stand, but there was also something that, to my archaic eye, seemed antiseptic and commercial about the whole thing, a festival still but a less spontaneous one. I walked past a series of tents along the end zone where, along with discs and programs, a whole line of cute and stylish Ultimate clothing was being sold. In my day most of the spectators were other Ultimate players who didn’t happen to be playing at the moment, and while that didn’t seem to have changed much, the fans were now far back from the field in the stadium stands, not gathered on the sidelines right on the field. Since my old Boston teammate John Axon had secured me an all-access field pass, I, after buying two beers and pouring them into my water bottle, got to watch the game the old-fashioned way: right on the sidelines.
As it turned out the first game I saw was the Semifinals and the sideline I was standing on was Boston’s, which sent me down the rabbit hole of memory. They were playing Seattle in the Semis, and it turned out they were losing to Seattle. Losing in the Semis. Ah, yes. I remembered it well. Later that night I would go by the hotel and try to interview the Boston players, but they were too busy with the hard and obsessive work of reliving their loss, drinking, and regretting. Again, I knew the feeling well. Frisbee had, in its own way, taught me about loss. Though losing a tournament couldn’t compare to losing a testicle or father, there is a way in which a loss in sports is more vivid and direct, more obvious, than the gradual losses of reallife. You had the sense of failure, of something being snuffed out, that you rarely got with more quotidian failure. As Dobyns had long ago pointed out, if winning is your goal, then only one team heads into the off-season happy. For the rest, for the young Boston team, it would be a long winter until spring broke and brought back hope of winning again the next fall.
My first thought was that the game looked good. Thin, tall athletes who knew what they were doing. Lots of fakes and forehands and not too much stoppage of play for arguing. It seemed like everyone had good throws, not just the best players—or as John Axon put it, “even the guys who can’t throw can throw”—and both teams had huge rosters filled by mostly clean-cut men who all wore numbered uniforms. There wasn’t a small grubby Hostage-like team in sight.
It was all pretty impressive but then something started to change while I watched, and the game became less clean and controlled as a new element of uncertainty was introduced. This was the same element that had always been able to change Ultimate games, the same element that had so vexed Steve Mooney against the Hostages back in the early ’80s.
As the wind picked up there were more drops and throwaways, and the sport started looking more like the one I knew. This was clear during the men’s Semifinals and even more during the next game I watched, the women’s Semis between Colorado and Boston, where the wind turned the game into a sloppy turnover fest. The skills in the women’s game had made even more of a jump than the men’s, however, as I learned the next day during the Finals when the Boston women’s team won it all. After the game, which had featured layout dives and skying of the sort that matched any men’s game, I gave my field pass to a dad of one of the players, a guy who had played during my era, and I teared up as he ran out and hugged his daughter after the win. I found myself wondering if my daughter would ever play Ultimate. In fact, the second-generational aspect of the sport was one of the most moving things about the weekend (and, mathematically speaking, for my group of players, a third generation isn’t far behind).
Hey David, fellow ILM scribe here. Hans to Franz. As an environmental writer, care to comment on our Great Leader's recent decision to leave the Paris Agreement? What's next for us, and what can we do on a local or personal level to combat this? Thanks for your time!
I am in a very bad place with all of that. After a summer of pushing the ultimate book I will no doubt stare it in the face and return to making it my main writing focus. But I'm just going to keep my head in the sand, or on discs, for a little bit. As Abbey once said "Enough saving the world. I'm going down the river." I'll be back fighting but oh lord what a mess....
What was your lowest moment in the sport and how did you rebound (or air-bounce)?
No question about it. Regionals 1983 losing to Rude Boys and Kaboom! We were on such a roll that year and had just crushed the Rude Boys something like 17-8 the tourney before. We choked plain and simple. I was living on Cape cod and fell into a deep depression. And I might have held a little something back every year after that, afraid of being burned as badly again....Second place goes to losing semis to Chicago the year NY NY first won.
Interesting, also what are some words of encouragement that you can give any ultimate player in that sort of scenario?
It's a lot easier to see it now, many years later, but it was the effort that mattered most. "For us there is only the trying," said T.S. Elliot. It is hard to see that in the moment though. How do you keep throwing yourself into something that causes so much pain. The best players use the pain to make themselves better. I was better at that in my writing than I was at ultimate.
Is it really true what they say about Titanic? Were their..you know...really gigantic?
Are you playing on a team in the upcoming Great Grand Masters Nationals?
Old and in the Way!
the Rude reunion team was gonna invite you, but we heard that you were injury prone and useless. oh well.
Yo yuppie dude. Check out your Wall Street Journal tomorrow morn when you smoke your pipe and drink your fancy coffee. And don't attack me with a mop!
Hello Mr. Gessner, I have a few questions if that is okay.
Is your book available in Audiobook?
Will you write another book and will it be available in audiobook format?
Would you write non fiction and/or fiction books in the future about other sports you like?
Have you ever been injured playing Ultimate Frisbee? If so, how bad were you injured?
Do you play Disc golf? If so, how good are you at it?
I remember playing Ultimate Frisbee 20 years ago in school, and I have wondered why over the past 35, 20 years we haven't seen Ultimate Frisbee take off in popularity in the USA like Soccer and Lacrosse, why aren't there Ultimate Frisbee teams at high schools and varsity teams(not club teams) at colleges?
What can be done to grow the American Ultimate Disc League to where it is more financially stable and more popular than it currently is?
How often are you on Reddit and what are your favorite subreddits?
What are your favorite pizza toppings and your favorite beer?
Yes it is on audio books and I narrate it. My last book was on audio too but I did not. I am just so-so at golf. I throw a forehand and can't keep it straight. I am thinking of writing a book about the Celtics. My book will cause the AUDL to be more popular than the NFL.