Chuck Culpepper will go anywhere for anything, damn it, and good for him

I could be totally wrong about this, but it feels like digital media is just beginning to figure out that it’s, in the vast majority of cases, supposed to be something altogether different than media in the predominantly printed-page time.

Before, too often would Internet content look and feel not like digital native work but like print work simply posted online. People like to read 5,000-word pieces in glossy magazines, therefore, the philosophy seemed to go, this is what people want online. The Internet felt like a vehicle for transporting the same content to different places rather than an incubator for creating something entirely new.

This is difficult to describe, because there’s a crossover effect that still applies – some truly great stuff works well in magazines and on the Internet. There’s actually a lot of content like that out there, and we’re all better for it.

But now, it seems, we’re reaching a place where the advantages of the digital space – limitless design possibilities, interactive visuals, social media engines, an ability to share and track what’s shared and so on – are being cultivated and utilized to produce things we’ve never seen before.

Quartz provides awesome business journalism mostly in relative snippets; Yahoo has Tech and Food sites so beautiful I don’t want to click on anything, except when you do, you realize you never actually depart that beautiful mosaic; The Dissolve has combined a classical feel with great, contemporary film writing; Vox Media just hired a big name to carve an original vision for a news site.

And those links are things I clicked on just in the last hour. There’s no argument available that this digital realization – that, hey, we have the ability to do so many incredible things that don’t ever leave the Web – is bad for the media business.

More mainstream careers are being built and blossomed in the digital realm. We’re becoming incredibly aggressive, and innovative, in the pursuit of traffic, which, ultimately, leads to more efficient business models and more opportunities for more people. Awesome.

And with all of that said – thank God for this Jeff Pearlman Q&A with Chuck Culpepper, a lungful of salty ocean air that many of us hardly ever receive for we don’t need to (and, remember, this is great!) step outside our digital worlds, ever.

Jeff, an accomplished author and former writer at Sports Illustrated, does great writing interviews on his site and this one with Chuck struck a refreshing chord that I wasn’t actively seeking. Chuck talks about his writing career, which has taken him all over the world and left him there for extended periods of time. He is a nomad in every sense. He doesn’t have kids and therefore is not bound to a place; he uses this to his advantage by seeking adventure wherever he can find it.

He has made residences in Los Angeles and New York and Portland and Paris and Dubai and London and other places. The way he talks about adventure, you sense that he has probably another five locations left in him before he retires to some place on a lake somewhere.

I admire Chuck’s curiosity and vigorous pursuit of adventure. Just listen to him describe his time in Abu Dhabi:

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.

Isn’t that refreshing?

It’s the sound of a person relentlessly seeking one of the simple thrills that can’t be had by remaining chained to a chair creating great Internet content (and, remember, this is great!). The ultimate irony?

Chuck works for a digital outlet – Sports on Earth. But the way in which he works for that company is not digital, but rather in-the-flesh journalism.

There’s no grand point to this, and I don’t mean to say Chuck is unique in that he’s an Internet writer who gets out in the world – again, there’s a lot of that.

I guess the only point here is that as we watch the digital world physically shift – to a place literally defined almost exclusively by traffic figures and social shares – it just feels good to watch someone say, “Screw it – I’m heading out for a bit. I’ll be back with the kind of content you can’t find in here.”

(And now I happily return to my invigorating digital gig.)

Twitter: @TMitrosilis Email: tmitrosilis@gmail.com

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