There comes a time in the life of every writer when he or she stumbles upon the phrase sui generis. It means, from the Latin, “of its own kind,” or, simply, unique. Once you learn it, you invariably use it, meaning that there is probably no writer who is sui generis in terms of using sui generis.
It is quite possible that I’ve used the phrase for something that wasn’t really sui generis, but I am quite sure that—as a sportswriter, and quite possibly as a writer of any kind—Steve Rushin fits the sui generis bill. Put simply: There is no one like him.
I suspect that at times being Rushin is not easy. Words, the tools of a writer’s trade, apparently dance across his brainpan in endless forms, a relentless Rockettes line of letters flashing their thighs and kicking up their heels. In what is both a gift and a curse, something that has been with him since he first learned to read, Rushin sees a word and instantaneously scrambles it, rearranges it, in effect undresses it, ogling it, as it were, for its potential playfulness, its susceptibility to pun, palindrome or anagram. Then he invariably remembers every form of that word and files it away until later.
(By contrast, the other day I was baking on the beach when I suddenly thought of a phrase that I just positively, absolutely had to remember, so I borrowed the cell phone of a stranger and sent myself a message. Then I bought a creamsicle.)
A former Sports Illustrated editor named Greg Kelly remembers collaborating with Rushin on a fantasy basketball book that required capsule comments on every player in the league. At the last moment they realized they had forgotten to write an entry for Vlade Divac, who had been threatening to leave the Los Angeles Lakers and return to his homeland. Deadline was upon them. Rushin took about a minute to think and then wrote: “Yugo says he’ll go; will forego Spago.” So in about 60 seconds he shortened Divac’s nationality into something rhymable, summoned from his vocabulary bullpen a verb that rarely comes up in conversation (forego), found a way to incorporate L.A.’s hippest restaurant, and turned the whole thing musical with the use of four go’s.
All this is a way of introducing Rushin’s recently published Sting-Ray Afternoons, his remarkable memoir of growing up in the ’70s. This is not a review. If it were, I would write, simply: “Worth the price of three books just to read the set piece about the author and his brothers playing basement hockey with the disembodied head of Baby Tender Love, his sister’s doll.” Instead, I’m using the book as a vehicle to talk about the craft of writing. I didn’t tell Rushin that I’m doing this. He’s a friend, but this isn’t about that. I simply found the book extraordinary, and, moreover, a gift to anyone considering sitting down to write anything—from a tweet to an epic novel. If nothing else, it got me thinking about how I could improve my own work.
A cautionary note: I don’t think any writer, beginning or otherwise, should consciously copy anyone’s style, and certainly not the style of Rushin, upon whose head I just touched the sword of sui-generis-dom. This piece is more about a way to approach your material, to dig deep, to stop settling for the mundane and the obvious, to paint a picture, to have some fun while getting across your point. Don’t be rushin’ to be Rushin, because I’m telling you right now … it’s not going to happen. To pick out just one moment from a thirty-year career of unique writing, the man once penned an epic poem (#) about the New York Mets’ futile string of third basemen that included jewels such as these:
MATT FRANCO (In Spanish, El Ranko) was inexpressibly vile/Along with BOB PFEIL the two had a style/ historians call Rank-and-Pfeil.
MIKE CUBBAGE Excelled at ball flubbage/He simply could not find the handle./But TIM FOLI–after two shots of Stoli–/Looked almost as good as LEN RANDLE.
Before we get to specifics, let us consider the audacious act of attempting a memoir, especially for someone who grew up in the warm cocoon of a Minneapolis suburb, loved, reasonably well-off, extremely intelligent and sort-of-well adjusted, an autodidact who also benefited from parental encouragement, and, also, in some strange way, from older-brother torture. As a kid, Rushin wasn’t a child movie star or a musical prodigy, and he didn’t grow up to be a coke addict, a scaler of mountains, a walker of tightropes or a dater of starlets. (He did marry Rebecca Lobo.) He didn’t write Stingray-Ray Afternoons, I assume, because he had so much to say about himself; he wrote it because he had so much to say in general.
One reviewer (who overall loved the book) objected to Rushin supplying extensive histories of ’70s consumer products, including the Schwinn model that gives the book its name. But that is one of the strengths of the book. Rushin manages to make himself a character in a cultural docudrama of the ’70s rather than the epicenter of a singular universe. There is not a hint of egotism in the book, the I buried under an avalanche of observation and detail. It’s equal parts autobiography of a writer and biography of a decade.
One other thing to note: The absolute honesty required to write a tale about yourself. It’s one thing to come clean about getting clean, as many celebrities do in their memoirs, which all end up being one, long humble-brag. Hey, look what I overcame, and, damn, I had some fun along the way. Rushin trades in pedestrian horrors. But of course, those really aren’t pedestrian at all, the phobias and fears that are hard to speak about—that his traveling-salesman father’s plane will be hijacked, for example, or that some part of his body is about to ache after big brother Jim delivers a “Hertz donut.” (Hurts, don’t it?) He includes anecdotes of not only peeing himself but also poo … well … you get the picture, which he supplies in words.
Not that there aren’t dramatic moments and moments of true emotion. Rushin describes coming upon his maternal grandfather’s name in The Baseball Encyclopedia—one James John Boyle, who played catcher for the New York Giants in one game at the Polo Grounds—and noticing his dates of birth and death: January 14, 1904, December 24, 1958. Writes Rushin when he looks back on a long-ago holiday moment:
Mom’s dad died on Christmas Eve, when Mom was twenty-four years old, and now—as she sits by the tree, eating Jimmy Dean sausage on a rye cracker, the Carpenters and John Denver and Anne Murray singing all her holiday favorites—I look for some sign on her face, some poker tell betraying her sadness. But there is nothing save her lipsticked smile and wave after wave of hors d’oeuvres washing up on my TV tray.
And as for Steve’s account of his mother’s death, well, as my daughter-in-law Erin puts it when she comes upon an image or an account of something indescribably wonderful or profound: “I can’t even.”
But Rushin can be described, above all, as a humorist, which doesn’t mean he’s funny all the time, though he usually is. It’s more that he looks at the world and interprets it with a kind of Twain-like sensibility. Here’s some of it:
+ There are lots of ways a writer could describe the, uh, special feelings inspired by Mary Tyler Moore in her eponymous sitcom, which was set in Minneapolis, where the Rushins resided. Steve did it thusly:
In subsequent seasons, in the show’s updated title sequence, this virginal Mary will stir confused longing in me as she sloshes a soapy rag across the blue hood of what looks like a life-sized Hot Wheels car while wearing the purple number 10 jersey of Vikings quarterback Fran Tarkenton, ticking all the boxes of Catholic- school/Bloomington/adolescent erotica.
I’m trying to get at the idea that you have to reach as a writer, the trick being, of course, not to reach too far, and especially not to reach into Rushin territory, which is as vast as, well, Russian territory. The trick, as Bob Seger wrote in “Against the Wind,” is figuring out “what to leave in and what to leave out.” There’s no manual on that, no guide. You have only yourself, and, if you’re lucky, a great editor.
+ On the hot car seats Steve and his four siblings experienced on long car trips:
You could write: “The car seats were hot on our thighs.” Rushin wrote: “The back of every thigh sizzling like the flame-broiled patty of a Whopper.”
+ On the packing abilities of his oft-traveling father:
You could write: “Dad was an efficient folder of shirts.” Rushin wrote: “He can fold a dress shirt as fast and fastidiously as a Marine triangle-folding the U.S. flag.” Note: Not just folding the flag, triangle-folding the flag.
+ On the realization that his older brother is really getting older:
You could write: “When Tom turned thirteen, I really sensed that he was different from me.” Rushin wrote: “All my fears are absent in Tom. He’s not afraid to break bones, talk to girls, or swear. He’s thirteen now, and I can feel him riding away from me, disappearing down the road, the reflector on the back of his ten-speed glinting in the sun.”
+ On being introduced to Tom’s albums:
You could write: “I remember being confused by the Eagles’ Hotel California.” Rushin wrote: “The Hotel California itself scares the wits out of me, with its satanic guests stabbing beasts with their steely knives and its unreasonably inflexible checkout policy.”
To reiterate, the important thing isn’t what Rushin thought about Hotel California. I’m 20 years older than Steve, and I guaran-damn-tee you I was thinking different things about it at the time. It’s about the humor Rushin used to describe it, that idea of digging a little deeper and turning the lyric, “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave,” into an “unreasonably inflexible checkout policy.”
+ The picture of Jesus Christ that hangs in the Rushin home is a recurring motif. Here’s one example of how Rushin used it, as he listens on the staircase to his parents hosting a party:
Downstairs, the party has gone quiet, everyone hanging on Dad’s story. The raised right hand of Christ above the credenza seems to be telling me, “Keep it down. I want to hear this.”
+ He describes an autograph-seeking trip to a local hotel like this:
Which is how I come to be blinking back tears when the Vikings walk into the Holiday Inn, wearing Stetsons and suede pants and sideburns like shag-carpet samples. Their shirt collars are great wings that flap as they walk.
Perhaps I could’ve come up with “great wings” for shirt collars, but I could sit in front of my laptop for a hundred years and never think of “sideburns like shag-carpet samples.” So again: The point is not to try to be Rushin, but, rather, to work for your own metaphors and visual pictures.
That great philosopher Chuck Daly once said: “Your greatest strength is also your greatest weakness.” He was probably talking about Dennis Rodman, but it pretty much holds true for anyone, especially writers. Rushin’s adroitness with words has been held against him in some quarters, and I suppose on rare occasions he has burrowed too deeply into wordplay. (I know for a fact that after an adult beverage or two he has burrowed too deeply into impressions of Johnny Carson doing Art Fern.) But I never found it to be at the expense of content.
Then, too, one might ask—and one has asked—if a talent like Rushin’s might’ve been better employed writing more Serious Material than, oh, 1,500 words on inadequate third baseman.
It’s a fair question. I mean, is it really necessary that Rushin can toss off a line about a tsunami of laundry and follow it up with the parenthetical “Is this why they call it Tide?” Or that, in something that no doubt came to him in a millisecond, he can write of a decision his father made: “Such is the one-track mind of the eight-track salesman?” Or that a family trip to Colonial Williamsburg resulted in “butter-churning tedium in the dog’s-breath heat of a mid-Atlantic August?”
Well, maybe not in the larger scale of things. But we do what we do, and I would argue that a lot of what Rushin writes is serious, which is the case with Sting-Ray Afternoons. It’s about family and friends and cultural connections and fears that plague us all, feelings and emotions that unite, indeed—identify—us as humans. Those, too, are important. As for Rushin and that type of writing, Nobody Does It Better, the title, by the way, of the Carly Simon song that came out in 1977. But the author, I can say with absolute certainty, already knows that.