Recognizing Failure

I'm here to report that, with great effort, I was able to finish today's Couch to 5K routine without keeling over. Hell yes! It's funny how trivial this accomplishment seems as I write it. In actuality I ran for about 15 minutes and walked for 5 in today's workout, which isn't all that impressive, but damn if I didn't feel good afterwards. If you were in the gym, and saw me plodding away on the treadmill you wouldn't notice anything out of the ordinary. Meanwhile, I was screaming just about every obscenity I could possibly think of while finishing that last three minute interval. What was amazing, is that for the first time in years I was able to get passed the mental wall that comes when which my shins start to feel like they are on fire, and only had to deal with the standard, pain in the side, shortness of breath that I know is entirely beatable. Once I can get over the pain in my legs that happens after a couple minutes of running, I'll be able to run for miles without stopping once my lung capacity get's back to where it was five years ago. The other two workouts I have this week will not be a cake walk, but now I know that I'm up to the task.

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Last Friday I read post on Grantland called "Dr. V's Magical Putter", written by Caleb Hannan, a writer I had never read before. I should note before I get too far into this rant that I really enjoy and respect the writing that Grantland produces on a consistent basis. In the case of this story, however, I found there was a certain tone deafness and moral questionability that is out of place the site.

"Dr. V's Magical Putter" is the story of Essay Anne Vanderbilt, a woman who designed a putter that she claimed is so good it would change the way all other putters are designed. I'm going to note up front that Essay Anne Vanderbilt was a transgender woman who committed suicide on October 18th of last year. These are facts that the reader does not learn until later in the story.

Mr. Hannan, upon learning of this seemingly magic putter, decides to write a feature article on how such a marvelous piece of sports technology came to be. While researching the article Vanderbilt makes multiple requests that Hannan stick to talking about the science and not the scientist. She does not want Hannan to dig into her past. It's when Hannan realizes that the little bit of background information Vanderbilt has given is full lies that he does the thing that all good journalists do, he digs deeper. In the midst of doing comprehensive research he realizes that Vanderbilt is actually a transgender woman. She was born Stephen Krol.

It's from this point on that a seemingly innocuous piece about a golf club turns into an attack piece on Vanderbilt. Which brings me to the problem I had with this article, and anyone responsible for it getting published. First of all, there are certainly plenty of things that are fair to attack Vanderbilt on. She lied about where she went to college and about her job history. She told these lies to a person who ended up investing a lot of money in the company she had started to sell the putter. This was not a person above reproach. Where the story goes wrong is in the way Hannan uses the fact the Vanderbilt is not openly transgender to help make his case of her deceitfulness. Hannan even feels compelled to tell the investor about Vanderbilt's sex change - this really put me off. There's a feeling of exploitation that I got when reading the second half of the piece that made me feel at unease. The fact that Vanderbilt was transgender became the lynchpin of the piece, or at least that's the way it read to me, you can read it for yourself and come to your own conclusion.

I was a little perturbed by story. Here we have a writer who, upon realizing some sensational things about his subject, loses focus on what the story he is writing should be and decides to try make it into something more. The tone he is going after is Hunter S. Thompson, and the gimmick he's going to lean on is the fact that Vanderbilt is actually a trans female... and she lied about a bunch of other stuff too. In actuality Vanderbilt never lies about her gender. She is transgender. There is no need for her to explain herself on this count. This is my main problem with this piece, and why I don't think it should have been published.

I thought about writing a something about this piece on Friday, but never could find the write words to express just how much I was put off by the Hannan's column. It was on Saturday morning that I was linked to this really great think piece by Mari Dahvana that pretty much summed up my thoughts on the subject perfectly. I relinked this piece on the social media sites I frequent and kind of dropped the topic from my mind. It was only today, when a friend sent me the link to the original article, that I started to seek out more responses to the piece. I wanted to have an informed discussion and not just make arguments based on emotion. I wanted to see if I was off base feeling the way I did about the way Hannan wrote the feature and the fact that it was able to get through editorial. Here are the best reaction columns I could find.

I think these reaction pieces form a really interesting conversation about the role of ethics in creative nonfiction and journalism. Bill Simmons, the EIC of Grantland, also wrote a piece explaining how this story came to be published. He at once encourages the reader to blame him for the article being published in the first place, extends his apologies to Hannan for letting him down, and expresses some confusion about the delayed vitriolic response from the general public. I think Simmons comes off as overly defensive, if not justifiably so. The thing that really gets me in Simmons' response post, however, is this:

Caleb’s biggest mistake? Outing Dr. V to one of her investors while she was still alive. I don’t think he understood the moral consequences of that decision, and frankly, neither did anyone working for Grantland. That misstep never occurred to me until I discussed it with Christina Kahrl yesterday. But that speaks to our collective ignorance about the issues facing the transgender community in general, as well as our biggest mistake: not educating ourselves on that front before seriously considering whether to run the piece.

The biggest fault of the editorial team was how tone deaf they were to allow this piece to be published as it is currently written. I certainly do not have the chops of the guys and gals working in the Grantland offices, but I would have had some huge reservations with the story. The fact that the piece was never once ran by someone either from the transgender community, or someone like Kahrl, who works for ESPN, is unacceptable. The team at Grantland has acknowledged that they made a series of mistakes, and are making changes to ensure that something like this never happens again. I give them a lot of credit for that.

Writing is not easy. If you've read any of my posts from the past 21 days, I think I've already made that point readily apparent. Finding a truly great story is a once in a lifetime opportunity, but it's not just the story the counts, it's how we choose to tell it that makes all the difference. Every writer fails, even when given great material to work with. It's the job of the editor and the writer to realize these failures and either fix them, or move on to something else; no matter how enticing the story may be. I guess Hannan has been getting death threats the past couple of days, and that's a real shame. It should have never gotten to this point. Hopefully after all the anger dies down and we have some time to reflect on what happened here, we will all be a little more sensitive to what makes a story work.