The Storm Turns 3 – Here's What It's Made Of
11 influences that built this newsletter
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If you were to read through the first few months of Storm articles or listen to the first couple dozen podcasts, something would feel off. The section headers are inconsistent. There are few photos. No sourced stories. No sponsors. No Bros. No charts – no charts! How did we survive without eight-times-monthly reminders of the average annual snowfall of Sundown Iowa? If you want to sort through that closet, this article itemizes 10 stories from The Storm’s first three months:
But The Storm’s core would seem familiar: the writing style, the vacillation between humor and bewilderment, the awe and the frustration, the gentle hyperbole, the occasional sidetrip into the absurd. The podcast format hasn’t changed much. The subject matter is still lift-served skiing and pretty much nothing else.
Today, The Storm turns 3 years old. It has evolved from an unknown and regionally focused experiment into a national platform with a half-dozen sponsors, a spot on Ski magazine’s top 10 ski podcasts list, and (thanks to my paid subscribers and said sponsors), a sustainable business model. I’ve tightened the focus to a few core topics (passes, lifts, masterplans, expansions), honed the podcast format, and anchored my reporting in a vast and evergrowing network of sources spread across the continent.
But if The Storm’s life-cycle were an hour, I still think we’re in the first minute. Every day, I try to make this thing better. I view it as a lifelong project – I will never run out of people to interview, mountains to explore, pass or lift additions to amaze myself over. But you can’t build a castle on sand. Like the skyscrapers thrusting from Midtown Manhattan, I sought bedrock.
It wasn’t easy to find. Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers mainstreamed the 10,000-hour rule – the research-grounded notion that true mastery in any discipline requires that minimum time commitment. This is certainly true of writing. It takes persistence and mentors and failure and leeway for wild experimentation. Writing also requires endless reading, identifying and devouring examples of excellence; motive, some animating event to bring it into existence; and energy, focus, self-awareness, and discipline.
What built The Storm? Why did I make it and why does it look and read and sound the way it does? I have a deep list of influences I could point to – individuals who provided guidance or created something so unambiguously great that I said, “Gosh I wish I could do that.” And why, when I have a full-time job and two children and a very full life, did I choose to launch this project that consumes whatever free time I once had? And why are the bits and parts structured the way that they are, with a newsletter and a podcast and nothing that is not one of those two things? The answer to those questions is basically the autobiography of my life, but here are 11 where the influence is the most direct and observable. Here’s what The Storm is made of:
The University of Michigan’s official athletic site is mgoblue.com. Thus, MGoBlog – get it? Clever, right? The site is, actually, brilliant. For Michigan sports fans, it’s a cultural touchstone and reference point, comprehensive and hilarious. Everyone reads it. Everyone. It’s like it’s 1952 and everyone in town reads the same newspaper, only the paper is always and only about Michigan sports and the town is approximately three million ballsports fans spread across the planet. We don’t all read it because we’re all addicted to sports. We all read MGoBlog because the site is incredibly fun, with its own culture, vocabulary, and inside jokes born on the shared frustrations and particulars of Michigan (mostly football, basketball, and hockey) fandom.
Brian Cook is the site’s founder and best writer (I also recommend BiSB, who writes the hysterical Opponent Watch series). Here is a recent and random sample – sportsballtalk made engaging:
It was 10-10 and it was stupid. Like half the games against Indiana, it was stupid and dumb. At some point I saw a highlight from that Denard game against Indiana where IU would score on a 15-play march and then Denard would immediately run for a 70 yard touchdown. "God, that game was stupid," I thought. Flinging the ball in the general direction of Junior Hemingway and hoping something good would happen, sort of thing. Charting 120 defensive plays, sort of thing. Craig Roh playing linebacker, sort of thing.
Don't get me started about #chaosteam, or overtimes, or anything else. My IQ is already dropping precipitously. Any more exposure to Michigan-Indiana may render me unable to finish this column. (I would still be able to claim that MSU was defeated with dignity, if that was my purpose in life.)
I had hoped that a little JJ McCarthy-led mediation in the locker room would straighten things out. Michigan did suffer through a scary event when Mike Hart collapsed on the sideline. This is a completely valid reason you may not be executing football with military precision, even setting aside whatever dorfy bioweapon the Hoosiers perfected about ten years ago.
Those hopes seemed dashed when Michigan was inexplicably offsides on a short-yardage punt on which they didn't even bother to rush. A touchback turned into a punt downed at the two, and then Blake Corum committed a false start and Cornelius Johnson dropped something that was either a chunk play or a 96-yard touchdown. Johnson started hopping up and down near the sideline, veritably slobbering with self-rage. The slope downwards to black pits became very slippery.
JJ McCarthy said "namaste."
Cook is consistent. I knew I could simply grab the first thing from his latest post and it would be excellent, and it was. Even if you know nothing about football, you know that’s strong writing.
In The Storm’s early days, I would often describe my ambitions – to those familiar with the both sites – as wanting “to create MGoBlog for Northeast skiing.” What I meant was that I wanted something that would be consistent, engaging, and distinct from competing platforms. Skiing has enough stoke machines and press-release reprint factories. It needed something different. MGoBlog showed me what that something could be.
2. The Jim Rome Show
There is nothing more aggravating than listening to a couple of chummy morons interrupting each other for three consecutive hours. Besides perhaps listening to a couple of chummy morons repeatedly interrupt their interview guests, who in general are way more interesting than the yukahoos hosting the show. Jim Rome doesn’t do any of this. He hosts the show solo. He lets his guests talk. My podcast interview style – the not interrupting, the over-the-top preparation, the two-part questions, the extreme gratitude to my guests – is exactly modeled after Rome’s.
The interviews, however, are the least-consequential portion of the daily sports radio show, which I’ve been listening to since the late ‘90s. The Jungle, as it’s unofficially known, is the most entertaining three hours of radio that I’m aware of. Rome, an inductee into the Radio Hall of Fame, is smart, nimble, and hilarious. The show is populated with a set of characters, customs, and inside jokes that continually build off of one another and spiral in wild directions. The best moments come in Rome’s interactions with listeners, who call, tweet, or email the show with their takes, which range from profound to profoundly stupid. I myself am a small part of show lore: from 2008 to 2012, I distracted myself from my day job by writing frequent emails under the codename “Stu in Manhattan.” In 2010, the show’s listeners voted me “Emailer of the Year.” Eventually, I stopped participating, but I never stopped loving The Jungle (and, yes, The Storm name is a bit of a tribute to The Jungle).
3. Michael Finkel, Skiing magazine
As a ski-obsessed Midwest teenager, I embarked on a Titanic-scale quest for information. I did not grow up in a ski family, so I had no well of institutional knowledge to draw from. There was no functional commercial internet. Whatever niblets I could find were stored in libraries or the shelves of the local pharmacies, in ski magazines.
I devoured these – especially the feature stories, immersive adventures in the snowbound corners of all seven continents. This was top-flight journalism, of the sort you only find in prestige newsmagazines today: incredible writing, editing, and photography. And the best ski writer of the 1990s was Michael Finkel. Here’s a sample, from a story called The Mad River Cult in the November 1994 issue of Skiing:
I ripped my ski pants wide open – from one knee right up the inseam and straight down to the other knee. I had been slaloming through a tight stand of trees at Mad River Glen, Vermont, when abruptly, my line ended. Rapidly approaching a full-grown pine and a human-sized birch sapling, with no room between them, I chose the sapling and slammed into it at full speed. I flipped forward, clutching the trunk, then somersaulted off like a pole-vaulter, to the accompaniment of a prolonged rip, and divoted the snow with my forehead. Things like that can happen at Mad River.
My three partners – Mad River tree ninjas all – had seen my crash. Fingers were pointed at my legs; there was much sniggering. I looked down: strips of nylon dangled from my pants like Tibetan prayer flags.
The pants were too tattered for slopeside duct-taping, but given the snow conditions – some of the finest East Coast powder I’d ever experienced – stopping for the day was out of the question. Stopping for five minutes was out of the question. So I skied all afternoon in a pair of pants my mother would call a shmatte, which is Yiddish for, among other things, an article of clothing unfit for a scarecrow. Nobody at the ski area gave me so much as a second glance: At Mad River, people tear their pants open all the time.
I read everything Finkel wrote. Fifty times. His stories on the Powder Highway and Killington and Winter Park taught me about skiing and ski culture without really trying to do so. He is the writer who made me want to be a ski writer, to funnel the energy and dynamism of skiing into a story. And while I don’t (usually) write adventure stories, The Storm materialized out of this notion that a person could write about skiing for money, and have fun doing it.
Unfortunately, Finkel was later fired by The New York Times Magazine for creating a composite character out of several real-world sources for a story about West African slavery. This news devastated me. Finkel was my first and only hero – I’ve been leery of the designation ever since. And while Finkel has since published multiple books and aggressively owned his mistake, Club Journalism is unforgiving of cheaters. It’s impossible to say whether Finkel’s energetic dispatches from 1990s snowfields were 100 percent indicative of actual events, and the writing hits me as less profound several decades on. But the immutable fact is that Finkel’s mad enthusiasm for skiing and for writing helped create The Storm.
4. A stack of 53 spiral-bound notebooks
In September 1995, when all my friends had scattered to college, I found myself in need of an outlet. I found it in a wide-ruled notebook. Over the successive months, I documented my obsessions and frustrations, my longing for the coming ski season, my adventures and mishaps. I’ve never stopped writing. The stack of notebooks is 53-high and counting. A journal is a tremendous mental-health tool, an unmatched medium for the unloading of the soul. But it is also a perfect way to practice writing. There are no rules in a journal. Experiments keep it interesting. No pop-ups to distract. Just writing. I’ve noted before that I don’t experience writer’s block – the thousands of hours spent blasting through journal entries is likely why. Reps can make you fearless, unintimidated by error or fear of failure.
5. Professor David Augustine
I took a lot of writing classes in college. Surprise. A lot of creative writing and a lot of essay writing and a lot of creative nonfiction. Most ran workshop-style, with the class discussing one student’s work for an extended period. This is a powerful mechanism for identifying errors and improving mistakes. But all of the student and professor feedback I ever received does not add up to the impact of one sentence uttered by Professor David Augustine in my fall 1997 creative writing class: “If you’ve heard it before, don’t use it.”
This is the best writing advice I have ever heard. Cliches are everywhere. They destroy the work of otherwise talented writers. Cliches range from the simple – “well-oiled machine” – to the more nuanced: if you ever use the phrase “think outside the box,” you are exposing yourself as the most unoriginal person possible by using a cliché to describe your uniqueness. But cliches are difficult to avoid. Excising them is an exercise in extreme self-awareness.
6. My dentist on East 76th Street
In the mid-2000s, I frequented a dentist on East 76th Street in Manhattan. I think his name was Shapiro. After my fourth or fifth visit, I observed that I had never seen anyone else other than fellow patients in the office. He confirmed that he had no secretary, no office staff, no assistants. “I couldn’t imagine having anyone else in here,” he told me. We talked about skiing. He took every Wednesday off in the winter and would take weeklong trips out West. A few years after I started seeing him, he retired. He was still fairly young.
And I was like, “Dang.” Here’s a guy who cut out all the bullshit. The staff, the luxe décor, the patina of Manhattan I’ve-made-it. He just did his job and got the fuck out. Then he retired and did whatever he wanted for the rest of his life, because the fat dentist checks that are usually eaten by fat expenses were his and his alone.
The Storm, I knew from the outset, would be a newsletter and only a newsletter (and a podcast). No events, no swag, no staff, no video, no collaborations. If this was going to work, it would be because I hyper-focused on doing one thing very well.
But then again, Shapiro’s root canals eventually failed, necessitating a pair of tooth implants, which is a five- or six-part ordeal involving repeated rounds of grunting pain. So the lesson here is be careful how you choose your dentist.
7. Michigan football’s two decades of misery
The reason I began reading MGoBlog is that I am a Michigan football superfan. I have season tickets even though I live in New York City. From 2009 to 2014, I didn’t miss a single home game (I now average about four per year). Yes, I am a graduate of the school, but I have dozens of friends who are not and follow the team rabidly. It is the winningest program in the history of college football. Michigan Stadium is the largest sports arena in America, with a capacity of around 110,000 (attendance is often higher). The pageantry, the gameday energy, the wild sprawling miles-square tailgates are an utter joy to be a part of.
But following a 1997 national championship, Michigan entered a period of malaise, then outright calamity, before reverting to general disappointment. There are many misery points I could elaborate on, but the most succinct is this: between 2001 and 2019, Michigan lost 17 of 19 games to its hated rival, Ohio State. Many of these games were blowouts. The close ones always fell in OSU’s favor. Every year, the school would send Commando-caliber squads of athletes to the NFL, and every year the team just got better.
It was frustrating. Sports pundits once considered Michigan-Ohio State as the top rivalry in sports. By the late 2010s, I didn’t even consider it a rivalry anymore, so anticlimactic were the annual results. Then, in 2018, Michigan went into Columbus with the top-ranked defense in the nation. Ohio State fans, for once, seemed nervous. Ohio State was as good as always, but Michigan was a machine, annihilating every team it had faced: 38-13 against Wisconsin, 42-7 versus Penn State, 21-7 against Michigan State. This would, finally, be the year.
It wasn’t the year. Ohio State crushed Michigan 62-39, racking up the most points it had scored in the rivalry’s 121-year history.
It was years before I could get excited about Michigan football again. I attended fewer games, visited MGoBlog less frequently. I needed somewhere else to put my passion and energy.
A few months later, riding the chairlift at Mad River Glen, I sent my wife a series of furious texts outlining a podcast idea I’d had on the drive up that morning. After a spring and summer of prep, 11 months after that football game, The Storm debuted. (Michigan finally and soundly defeated Ohio State last Nov. 27, for the first time since 2011.)
When the towers fell on Sept. 11, 2001, I was a very ignorant person. I could not have told you who the vice president of the United States was. I had never heard of Al-Qaeda or Osama bin Laden or Donald Rumsfeld or any of the other people and entities that would reshape our world over the next decade.
It is impossible to describe what life was like in America in the weeks after those attacks. Everything suddenly felt very empty. And panicked. And confusing. Here we were shopping at Abercrombie on our big safe continent and suddenly highjacked airplanes are flying into skyscrapers. The nation launched wars and passed laws and made a lot of rash decisions. But each individual seemed to have a reckoning as well. Mine was that I was tired of being an ignoramus, a person who could recite the starting lineup of the Detroit Pistons but couldn’t name a single U.S. senator.
So I subtly rearranged my life, began reading the daily newspaper and following politics and current events. This was before I had children, and just keeping up felt like a meaningful way to participate in the wider world. I soon knew the important people in state and local politics, and formed opinions on the causes and controversies of the day.
And this was fine until Facebook came along. And even Facebook was mostly fine until 2016. And really after that I grew more frustrated each day. Everyone I knew was suddenly obsessed with politics, but not in a let’s-be-good-citizens kind of way. More in a let’s-join-this-cult-and-take-extreme-positions-on-every-issue sort of way. Everyone became very certain of themselves, very loud, very doomsday-all-the-time. It was exhausting.
So I checked out again. I didn’t read a single political article from around early 2017 until Covid landed in early 2020. Again, I needed something more innocuous to immerse myself in. Skiing was it.
9. The New Social Network Isn’t New at All
I was riding the L train home from work in March 2019, when I clicked open a New York Times article about email newsletters:
My favorite new social network doesn’t incessantly spam me with notifications. When I post, I’m not bombarded with @mentions from bots and trolls. And after I use it, I don’t worry about ads following me around the web.
That’s because my new social network is an email newsletter. Every week or so, I blast it out to a few thousand people who have signed up to read my musings. Some of them email back, occasionally leading to a thoughtful conversation. It’s still early in the experiment, but I think I love it.
The newsletter is not a new phenomenon. But there is a growing interest among those who are disenchanted with social media in what the writer Craig Mod has called “the world’s oldest networked publishing platform.” For us, the inbox is becoming a more attractive medium than the news feed.
A couple weeks later, I logged into Substack and claimed the “skiing.substack.com” domain (I’ve since updated it to stormskiing.com, though I still own the former as well). It would be nearly seven months before I sent out my first newsletter, but if there was a moment when The Storm tangibly came into existence, this was it.
Without Substack or a similar service, there would be no Storm. Substack’s premise is simple: they take care of all the tech so that writers can write. I have no interest in running a website. The only thing I care about or have ever cared about is writing. Substack takes a piece of my subscription revenues. It’s worth it. And had I not read that article at my exact moment of disenfranchisement from the worlds of football and politics, I’m not sure that I would have been inspired to bring this whole thing together the way I have.
For years I wrote with no reward or recognition. I spent thousands of hours writing books that I could not interest anyone in publishing. I had a short-running satire column on McSweeney’s, for which I received no compensation (I’d won honorable mention in their annual column contest, and yay exposure). Eventually I burned out on writing novels (I wrote five). Working for years and years and yielding nothing is demoralizing. I always had a job, but I toiled on my side projects, hoping for a break of some kind. I needed some easier wins. A newsletter, with its frequent dispatches and unchangeable final product, delivered the sort of creative gratification and validation that I had been unable to draw from my fat manuscripts. If Substack had existed a decade ago, perhaps The Storm would have too, but I think I needed to fail through standard gatekeepers before I could deign to self-publishing and its attendant risks of obscurity.
11. My wife
You know, I can do the writing. I can’t do the audio stuff. It took me months to figure out how to record and edit the podcast. The audio mix would have been an impossible task. My wife, a TV editor by trade, figured out the whole process and continues to edit the podcast today.
That’s important, but, really, it takes an enormous amount of patience to tolerate The Storm and all its attendant disruptions. This is essentially a full-time job on top of my full-time job. Spare time is, well, spare. I write constantly and endlessly. Whatever time remains I spend skiing, at least in the winter. She skis, but she doesn’t love it like I do. We are united in our long-term goals around The Storm, but the day-to-day can be intense as we grow it into a sustainable business. But she has encouraged this endeavor since its first day. She understands my need for a creative outlet, for channeling my energy into my mad invention. And she knows that I have never found work more gratifying.
If you’ve been with me since 2019, you are a true Storm OG. I cannot thank you enough for reading, listening, sharing, and subscribing. I hope you’ll stick with me as I continue to grow and evolve this thing far into the future.
Here are past Storm anniversary posts:
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The Storm publishes year-round, and guarantees 100 articles per year. This is article 111/100 in 2022, and number 357 since launching on Oct. 13, 2019. Want to send feedback? Reply to this email and I will answer (unless you sound insane, or, more likely, I just get busy). You can also email email@example.com.
Also, kinda want to hear more about these five novels.....
I have only been with The Storm a few months but I’m glad You started this and glad I found it. Your writing and coverage of skiing and it’s places and people are the best I have found since Snow Country closed up. Your articles are really engrossing and are giving me a great deal to think on as I try to sort out the next phases of my life. Keep it up and hope all continues to go well for you!