Monday, March 31, 2008

A Walter Mittyism—Secret Agent Man

I believe that it would be accurate to say that I am an intelligence buff; Intelligence (or intel, as we like to call it—we being other intelligence buffs) in this case referring to espionage, national security issues and, well, spy stuff in general. My interest has both a serious side and a less than serious side.

Regarding the less than serious side, I confess that I am, like so many, drawn to the romantic and exotic notions of the cloak and dagger world of spies and espionage as it is portrayed in popular books and movies, from James Bond to Jason Bourne. And, of course, Emma Peal.

Who could forget Emma Peal, the British super spy from the 1960s TV show, The Avengers? She had an English accent. She knew karate. Her standard issue spy uniform usually consisted of a form-revealing cat suit or harem girl outfit, or some such thing. More often than not, each episode featured her being bound, suspended in a birdcage, or stretched-out on a rack by some sinister villain. I was nine years old at the time, and male. I didn’t stand a chance. Fortunately for Western national security interests, I did not work for the KGB. I mean, honestly. Emma Peal.

Secrets? Shoot, I would have sold out my own grandmother.

In addition to the movies and TV, the spy world has an even older and even more illustrious literary tradition, going all the way back to the Bible. I’ll have a lot more to say about that in future posts.

Regarding the more serious side of my interests in intelligence, I have long had a keen interest in the field as a public policy issue, as a topic in international studies, and as a result of current events both at home and abroad. I am interested in the history, the politics, the process, the technology, and the personages of intelligence and espionage.

I think that it is safe to state that intelligence as a public policy issue has always been in the public eye, with the public’s interest rising and falling as a result of domestic and foreign events. I also think that it is safe to say that, not since the Cuban Missile Crisis nearly turned the Cold War hot, has intelligence been so much in the forefront of our daily lives as it has been since the 2001 terrorist attacks upon the U.S.

Over the years, I have been fortunate in that I have been be able to pursue my interests in international affairs in a variety of ways, through opportunities afforded me by school and work. Since late 1999, however, my interests in international affairs (and intelligence) have been pursued primarily through my work in the book trade. And the book trade has been pretty generous in that regard, too, I might add.

Outside of the book world, I am indebted to the University of Georgia Center for Continuing Education in Athens, Georgia, for allowing me to develop and conduct a series of classes--plus a summer camp (Spy Camp)--on the subject of intelligence. These were amazingly informative and great fun, primarily due to the generous support that was given by the many organizations, institutions, and speakers who volunteered their time and expertise to my students and I.

Among those lending a hand to my class at the Georgia Center was the Atlanta Division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. On numerous occaisions, special agents from the Bureau’s Atlanta Division (and Athens) visited my class over in Athens to discuss everything from how to become a special agent to terrorism.

The folks at the Athens Banner Herald were good enough to send a reporter over to chat with us about the class. The resulting story can be read on-line at the Athens Banner Herald by clicking on the link below. It’s quite amazing how much interest there seems to be in the subject of intelligence, especially among young people.

One of the real perks for me from conducting the class at the Georgia Center was getting invited to participate in the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Citizen's Academy Program. The Citizen’s Academy is one of the Bureau’s many community outreach activities. It is similar to Citizen Fire Academies and Citizen Police Academies that are offered by municipalities across the country. I am a graduate of the FBI Atlanta Divisions’ Citizen’s Academy Class of 2006.

Each year, the Citizen’s Academy invites a group of ordinary citizens from a particular division’s surrounding community to spend 8 to 10 weeks (one night a week) learning about the FBI, who it is, what it does, how it does it, and what it’s priorities are in a particular community, among other topics. There is also a range day, during which academy participants visit a local FBI firing range and get a chance to use—under VERY CLOSE SUPERVISION—several FBI standard issue firearms, plus take a turn in a firearms training simulator.

The program is really quite extraordinary, for any number of reasons. I honestly believe that it goes quite a ways in educating community members as to the reality—versus some of the perceptions—about the FBI. And it’s just pretty darn cool.

Each week during the Academy, special agents give presentations on everything from organized crime to mortgage fraud to internet scams to gang violence to international terrorism, and all within the context of the local community. I have been involved with the Academy program for three years now (there is also an alumni association), and one of the things that I like most about it is the variety of people who participate in the program (in my case, from the metro Atlanta area).

As an Academy alumnus, one also enjoys the perk of being able to attend a session or two with the current class. This past week, I attended Class of 2008’s sessions on international terrorism and international counter-espionage. I also attended the same sessions with the class of 2007. Between the Academy sessions, and the similar presentations made to my classes at the Georgia Center, I have heard the same material covered perhaps a half dozen times, by the professionals who know the most about it. I still find it absolutely intriguing (in an uneasy sort of way, I'll admit) that my hometown of Atlanta, as well as the State of Georgia, figure in so many ways into the worlds of international terrorism and espionage, but such is apparently the case.

One closing note on the FBI’s Citizens Academy—after three years I have yet to meet the Hollywood stereotype Special Agent (you know, the stiff bureaucrat Joe Friday character). I find the agents and other Bureau personnel to be a very professional and interesting group of people, and pretty "regular" people, to tell the truth.

For more information about the FBI Citizen’s Academy, or the Atlanta Chapter of the FBI Citizen’s Academy, click one of the links below.

FBI Citizen’s Academy

Atlanta FBI Citizen’s Academy Alumni Association

Recommended Reads:

The Bureau and the Mole by David A. Vise. The book examines the case of Robert Phillip Hanssen, an FBI Soviet analyst turned mole for the KGB and Russian intelligence services. The story was the subject of the 2007 film Breach.

Bombs, Bugs, Drugs and Thugs—Intelligence and America’s Quest for Security by Loch Johnson. Dr. Johnson is Regents Professor of Political Science at the University of Georgia, and is the author of nearly a dozen books on intelligence. He is also one of the country’s leading scholars on the subject. I have attended a number of author events with Dr. Johnson over the years. At one such event—a discussion of the book recommended here, upon its release—Dr. Johnson expressed his opinion that one of the most significant security risks facing the U.S. was the risk of asymmetrical attacks by terrorist groups.
This was in January of 2001.

The following two titles are from Congressional Quarterly Publishing:

Intelligence—From Secrets to Policy by Mark M. Lowenthal

Intelligence Analysis: A Target-Centric Approach by Robert M. Clark

Publications by the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. are well worth a look, too.

This post will self-destruct in thirty seconds.

Real Men Read.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Happy Birthday Nic

Happy birthday, big man!

Who entered the world (throwing a right hook at the doctor) three years ago today.

I never know what's coming next.
--Gore Vidal

Nic's Book recommendations:

The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss

Charlotte's Web by E. B. White

Anything featuring racing legend Lightning McQueen.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Water--The Other Topic of this Blog

This blog is officially dedicated to the subjects of books and water. The “books” part I have already touched upon in previous posts. I would now like to say a few words about the “water” part. Why water?

For starters, water is pretty important stuff. It has been getting an enormous amount of media and, more recently, actual public attention in the past year or so here in Georgia as a result of the historic drought that the State has been experiencing. I mention that the public attention that water has been receiving of late in Georgia is a fairly new phenomenon because water is something that we in Georgia have generally taken for granted. Not so anymore.

I did not grow up in a place that was located on a significant body of water, but have spent much of my life visiting such places (Florida, the Georgia Coast, elsewhere in the US and abroad), even living for a time on an island (two, actually) off the Georgia Coast. I have also been a fisherman since I was old enough to hold a rod and reel, so I have spent a fair amount of time on or near lakes, rivers and ponds. I say that I did not grow up near a significant body of water (I grew up in Atlanta). That is to say, I didn’t think that I had, until I learned later in life about watersheds. Now I take back some of that statement about not growing up near a significant body of water.

I am not a math person, though I hope to become one some day. In early 1995, having just returned to the US from Peace Corps service in Albania, I met my very first water resources engineer at a returned Peace Corps volunteers (RPCV) meeting in Atlanta. I admit that I have always had a weakness for the pretty lady scientists in the James Bond movies. So, a year later we got married, then moved off to the deserts of Southern Arizona (It’s not so bad. It’s a dry heat.) where my education in water resources management really started.

I am a liberal arts graduate. Still, I can tell you the basics about watersheds (a.k.a., drainage basins), impervious surfaces, and runoff. I can hold my own when it comes to discussions about riparian buffer zones and point-source contaminants. I even have a passing familiarity with the water-related topic of giardiasis, a subject that I have investigated from the inside out, so to speak.

It’s interesting being married to a water resources engineer. In my wife’s case, she specializes in watershed management, water treatment plants, and water quality issues, that sort of thing. Now, when I assist our three-year-old son in going to the potty, I no longer tell him to flush. When he has finishes his business, I tell him, “All done? Okay. Let’s send it to mommy.”

Our five and a half-year-old daughter has a genuine appreciation for the fact that mommy works to make certain that everyone has plenty of clean water.

The connections between water and the literary world are too numerous to even begin to describe.

An excellent starting point for this discussion, I believe, is the River of Words Program. River of Words is an international program for school age children and emphasizes poetry, the arts, and an understanding of the natural world, particularly water resources. In Georgia, the program is coordinated by the Georgia Center for the Book and Project Wet (Water Education for Teachers). I plan to devote an entire post—or more—to this program in the future. For now, more information about River of Words may be found at these websites:

River of Words

Project Wet

And try these, too:

USGS Water Site (I love glossaries!)

Chattahoochee Nature Center (Atlanta)

Gwinnett (Georgia) Environmental and Heritage Center
(An island of green in an ocean of red)

I also plan to devote future posts solely to the GEHC (see above), and to other efforts in metro Atlanta, in my community of Gwinnett County, and throughout Georgia, that pertain to water resources and education, especially where there is a literary angle.

Finally, I’ll close this introduction to the water component of my blog with, appropriately, a book review.

I have just finished reading Peachtree Creek—A Natural and Unnatural History of Atlanta’s Watershed by David R. Kaufman. The University of Georgia Press, in cooperation with the Atlanta History Center, published the book in 2007.

Author, engineer, outdoorsman, photographer, resource advocate, historian, and adventurer in our own backyard, David Kaufman spent thirteen years, beginning in 1990, exploring the Atlanta watershed by canoe. He paddled the length of Peachtree Creek, from its headwaters in the Atlanta suburbs to its confluence with the Chattahoochee River, taking photographs and collecting stories and impressions. This feat alone makes his book—essentially the diary of his exploits—worth the reading.

Kaufman isn’t exploring some vast, uninterrupted wilderness. His journey takes place in the mostly densely populated urban setting of metropolitan Atlanta. It seems that he enters the creek mostly from parking lots. His trip takes him through the heart of the City, alternately passing through industrial landscapes and residential areas. He canoes past the backyards of upscale Atlanta neighborhoods, and stops to chat with the homeless who have set up house under the many bridges that cross the creek. He spends less time navigating rapids than he seems to in dodging discarded tires, appliances and automobiles…and minimizing contact with contaminated water. He passes through the few relatively tranquil stretches of creek, and under a number of Atlanta’s mega transportation arteries.

The book is both travel log, and photo essay. Many of the photos highlight the beauty still to be found along the Creek. Other photos trace the history of the Creek, its development, and its relationship to the greater Atlanta area. Other photos simply make one cringe at the mess that’s been made of this vital resource, and the historical and cultural resources that have been lost.

Peachtree Creek is also an excellent example of living history. Kaufman uses the book to explore Atlanta history from Standing Peachtree (the native American village that figures so much into the founding of Atlanta) to the present. Native and long-time Atlantans reading the book may be in for some interesting discoveries. As a native Atlantan, I was surprised at the number of times I thought to myself, “Wow. Who knew?” while reading this book. What makes the book so interesting in this respect is its focus on not simply the historical movers and shakers, but on the ordinary folk who inhabited the river’s banks through the centuries.

The book is an excellent work of environmental advocacy. Nowhere in the book does Kaufman beat the reader over the head with a message. He simply presents a wonderful story, picture, and history of an extraordinary resource and in so doing makes a very compelling case for doing something to preserve it. Peachtree Creek in essence helped give birth to a major American city, and continues to sustain it in the most elemental of ways. Yet, much of this resource, having been paved over, is essentially out of sight (and subsequently out of mind) of the very people whom it allows to thrive.

After reading Peachtree Creek, the thing that stands out in my mind is this. I look at the photographs in the book, particularly the shots taken in the less congested areas of the Creek, and I cannot help but think that we collectively accept some things that seem just a little, well, insane. Some of the most valuable real estate in metro Atlanta abuts Peachtree Creek. Imagine that you own a half-million dollar home, behind which flows a creek that more often than not smells of feces. Here is the water that sustains a city. Yet, until it has undergone an industrial process, not only is it unfit to drink. It is unfit to even touch.


Other books to check out:

Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain
River Rogue by Brainard Cheney (Georgia author)

Real Men Read.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

A Few Staff Recommendations

Hear are a few recommended book titles for the previous posts.


The Writer’s Chapbook by George Plimpton (ed.) A real gem for readers and writers, and fans of The Paris Review.

The Best of Plimpton by George Plimpton Many of Plimpton's classic pieces, including Sidd Finch.

George Plimpton—The Man in the Flying Lawn Chair and Other Excursions and Observations by Sarah Dudley Plimpton (ed.) A posthumous tribute to the creator of participatory journalism.

The Snakebite Survivors’Club—Travels Among Serpents by Jeremy Seal If you love snakes, or would like to, this book might be for you.


The New Complete Joy of Home Brewing by Charlie Papazian As I understand it, this is the classic for homebrewers, but I've found that beer people are nearly--nearly--as opinionated as book people.


The New Georgia Encyclopedia Companion to Georgia Literature by Hugh Ruppersburg and John C. Inscoe (eds.) A travelougue, history and adventure story through Georgia's literary, um, canon.

Broken April by Ismail Kadare Perhaps the best known work of Albania's (that's right, Albania's) major contemporary literary figure. The novel is set in nineteenth century Albania and revolves around the tradition of the blood feud (a tradition back on the rise since communism fell in that country in the early 1990s). Part Deliverance, part One Hundred Years of Solitude. The last book that I purchased at Oxford Bookstore.

Balkan Ghosts by Robert D. Kaplan A good Balkan primer. A modern contribution to the Balkan travelouge tradition (Farewell to Salonika, High Albania, The Balkan Trilogy). We'll be hearing more about this area of the world, in case you have already forgotten the Balkan wars of the 1990s.


The Haunted Bookshop by Christopher Morley A wonderful period New York novel.

A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe Moving to Atlanta? Read this.

Down on Ponce by Fred Willard Great Southern Crime Noir. Set in Atlanta.

Real Men Read.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Book Lovers, When in Atlanta

Keep your head down during the tornado season. Lord, what a mess.

Also, book folk, when in Atlanta you need to be certain to get over to Decatur—the City within a City—and check out the bookstore scene. The City of Decatur alone is worth the trip. It is very pedestrian friendly, offering a pleasant reprieve from our mostly car-oriented metropolis, and its notorious traffic. Decatur is also filled with interesting things to see and do, and has an excellent yearly calendar of terrific events, including the Decatur Book Festival. The City is right on the rail line, so getting to and from downtown Atlanta or the airport is fairly easy. It is also sandwiched in between Agnes Scott College and the Emory University Complex, both of which offer a regular mix of top-notch literary events. There’s Eddie’s Attic (think Indigo Girls and Shawn Mullins), the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Center, the DeKalb International Farmer’s Market (eat at the cafeteria), and one is just a stone’s throw from some other great Atlanta neighborhoods (Little Five Points, Virginia Highlands). If I sound like I work for the Decatur Chamber of Commerce, well, I am a former Decaturite, and just love the place.

But, back to Decatur’s bookstores. I want to mention one in particular: Wordsmiths Books. These folks have been making a stir in the Atlanta book world since they first opened. It’s a great independent with a really good web presence. In addition, they regularly partner with the Georgia Center for the Book (also in Decatur), the Decatur Library, and the Carter Center, in hosting author events. And they draw in some big names. Go check them out at Finally, be certain to visit all of Decatur’s bookselling community while you are there—share the wealth. America’s booksellers need all the help that they can get.

I look forward to assigning the editorial staff—me—of my new book news website to cover future book events in Decatur.

Decatur might well be Georgia’s literary center. I say, might. Right now, my personal vote goes to Athens. I feel so strongly about that that I am writing a book on the subject. Athens is, after all, home of the University of Georgia, the Georgia Writer’s Hall of Fame, the REM/B-52s/ Widespread Panic music legacy, the University of Georgia Press, Hill Street Press, The Georgia Review, and more writers than I can name (Terry Kay, Phil Williams, Judith Cofer, Coleman Barks, Loch Johnson, and the late James Kilgo to name just a few). For the sake of conversation, does anyone care to register a vote? Or suggest another contender? Tell me why, too. I am looking for story ideas.

While we are on the subject, if you are planning a literary tour of Georgia, I would like to recommend a possible travel guide. I just finished The New Georgia Encyclopedia Companion to Georgia Literature, edited by Hugh Ruppersburg and John C. Inscoe and published in 2007 by the University of Georgia Press. It was enough to make a Georgia-born bibliophile pretty uppity. I realize that the title of the book sounds like something your high school English teacher might force on you, or perhaps a required text for a college freshman composition course. But this book has everything—history, adventure, romance, drama, politics, and sex. I like to think that I am fairly well read, at least where Georgia authors are concerned. Still, I found myself repeatedly thinking to myself, “Wow, who knew?” while I was reading this book. I am adding a link to the New Georgia Encyclopedia to my favorite links. Fellow Information junkies, be warned, the on-line NGE can suck you in in much the same way as, say, wikipedia.

Real Men Read.

Monday, March 17, 2008

One Stop for Author Signings & Other Literary Events in Georgia

Dear Readers & Fellow Georgia Bibliophiles,

I have been in the book business for over a decade now. Most of that time I spent organizing—or helping to organize--author signings and other literary events, mostly in Georgia. It is amazing—especially to book folk—just how much is going on at any given time in Georgia with regards to books, authors and the larger world of publishing. Author signings, writer’s workshops, poetry readings, book festivals, conferences, seminars, discussion groups—something to appeal to nearly every taste, interest, genre, subject matter or age group.

The literary venues in Georgia are as varied as the authors and titles that they feature. Authors appear everywhere, from the superstore chain booksellers to small independent bookstores to warehouse discount stores like Costco and Walmart. Colleges, universities, religious organizations, public libraries, schools, and an assortment of both public and private institutions and organizations throughout Georgia are all hosting literary events. Of course, there are the premiere literary venues such as the Georgia Center for the Book and the Margaret Mitchell House and Center for Literature, both of which host an extraordinary line-up of authors and other literary activities throughout the year. Finally, from Dahlonega to Decatur to Savannah, annual literary and book festivals are plentiful in Georgia, and well attended by both authors and the reading public.

Georgia is also home to a diverse and prolific writing community, and some great small presses, not to mention a truly extraordinary literary heritage. I will be tooting their respective horns for them on my website at every opportunity.

For years, I have lamented to colleagues in the book business the lack of a single, comprehensive source of news about author events in Georgia. There are many—MANY—websites that give information about signings and other events, but to my knowledge, no one site that scans the news, web, etc. for who, what, when and where and then puts it in one spot. And I have looked for one, for years.

So, as a labor of love (for now), I plan to launch such a site in early April. I confess that I am doing it largely because 1) I personally like knowing what literary happenings are going on in Georgia, and especially what authors are appearing and where, 2) I have wanted a site like this myself for many years, and 3) I have already been accumulating this information on a regular basis for nearly ten years, so why not put it in one place for others to have quick access to. Oh, yes, and 4) as I stated, it will be a labor of love. I think that it will be great fun—though much work—and will keep me in touch.

I also hope to jazz up the site with author interviews and book reviews. So look for it coming soon.

Real Men Read.

The Balkans and Bookselling During an Election

First, I would like to say that my thoughts go out to friends, acquaintances and former colleagues in Tirane, Albania. I hope that they are all well, and that none of them were affected by this week's disastrous explosions at the military munitions dump located in the Tirane suburbs. Regarding other news from the Balkans, I certainly hope that policy makers are keeping a very close eye on events in Kosovo these past few days.

I just finished reading a story by Jeffrey A. Trachtenburg that appeared this week in the Wall Street Journal and concerns the book selling industry('Borders to show off books more, cut volumes'). The story is about Borders Group Inc.'s decision to apparently face-out all titles in their stores, which will necessitate reducing inventory in the stores. Interesting. The bit that really caught my eye, though, concerned the general state of book selling. It's a tough row to hoe, no doubt. I'm not so certain, however, that I agree with the author's suggestion that this year being an election year may further dampen book sales, or an interest in reading. My experience suggests that political books, candidate biographies, and political punditry all constitute a genre in and off themselves. They often tend to be out-of-box bestsellers, too, though they do tend to have short shelf lives. Any thoughts?

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Stay at Home Dad

I am presently enjoying the status of part-time stay-at-home dad. I am keeping my three year-old son, Nic. So I am thinking up appropriate projects and activities that we can do together that are educational, fun, and give us a chance to do some father and son bonding. Our big project this week is that we are going to make beer.

If other stay-at-home dads who are out there have interesting, educational, fun and appropriate activities that they would like to suggest, I would welcome their ideas. Please indicate if there are any special requirements needed for the projects, and where I might find them.


Tuesday, March 11, 2008

What I have in Common With George Plimpton

I have given some thought to what I want this blog to be about. That is, I have tried to think of a common thread with which to tie together subject matter as seemingly disconnected as books, water, fishing, trucking, espionage, the one-time Atlanta landmark of Oxford Bookstore, the Peace Corps, childrearing, Library 2.0, the Night Stalker, politics, Marx play sets, Harold Lloyd Movies, the Statler Brothers, and Georgia authors. This blog is of course about books. And books are about everything. But that’s a little broad, and a little vague.

I wanted to hone it down and identify one of the sources of the inspiration for what gets posted here by me. I believe that I can do so with two words—George Plimpton.

The late George Plimpton was a writer, editor, journalist, actor and generally speaking, doer of things.

Why George Plimpton? Well, everyone has his or her heroes. I have many, and he is one of my favorites. Back in the eighties, when I was a college undergraduate in Atlanta, and later in Statesboro, Georgia, I was a regular at the former and much-missed Atlanta institution of Oxford Bookstore (the original location at Peachtree Battle, for you Atlanta folks). One Saturday night, during one of my regular visits to Oxford, I came across a copy of The Writer’s Chapbook, edited by George Plimpton (Viking Penguin). The book is a collection of quotes from author interviews conducted over a number of years for The Paris Review (which Plimpton helped to found). I love books about books, authors, the writing process, etc., so I thumbed through the book for what must have been an hour. I didn’t buy it at the time. In fact, I didn’t buy it on my next five of six trips to Oxford. I did, however, go and look it up every time I was at the bookstore, to see that it was still there and to read some more of the quotes. I would haul it up into the loft of the store where the Cup and Chaucer coffee shop was located, and sit for an hour reading the quotes and drinking coffee. This was before the chain bookstores with their coffee shops arrived in town. I did this for several months on end before I eventually purchased the book.

I have had that book now for almost twenty years. It is worn out, the dust jacket has long since been lost, and every page is filled with my penciled-in notes. I wouldn’t get rid of it for anything, and I would just laugh at someone if they asked to borrow it. I have a newer copy of the same title that I might consider loaning to someone whom I truly trusted. Let me emphasize the word “might”.

My old copy is actually signed by Mr. Plimpton. You better believe that that was quite an occasion for me. My wife and I were living in Tucson at the time, both at the University of Arizona. And I had just recently entered the bookselling world for the first time. Mr. Plimpton had been invited by the university’s department of journalism to give the Fifth Annual William R. Mathews Ethics in Journalism Lecture. His subject was “At Play On Various Fields: Participatory Journalism.” It was the first time that I ever heard his story about the man who went flying in the lawn chair. Just brilliant. And hysterically funny the way he told it.

The auditorium was packed. One of the things that my wife and I noticed was that, sitting throughout the audience were a number of ladies, all seemingly in Mr. Plimpton’s age ‘demographic’, and all dressed in a similar style. One had to notice. They all wore the same version of a billowy, shimmering pants suit—kind of 1940’s Hollywood—and all wore what I can only describe as turbans (with the little jewel in the center, just over the forehead). I know next to nothing about fashion, so that is my best description. Each of these ladies seemed to be enthralled with Mr. Plimpton, and looked at him as though they were about to swoon. They all had an “Oh, George!” look on their faces. My wife and I decided that these ladies were obviously George Plimpton groupies. We counted at least a half dozen in the audience.

In any event, well before the presentation, my wife and I were standing in the lobby of the student center and, well, there he was. George Plimpton was standing just a few feet from us. The lobby was nearly empty. He was chatting with a gentleman whom I took to be with the University. When that gentleman stepped away, I walked over to Mr. Plimpton and asked him if he would mind autographing my copy of The Writer’s Chapbook. I had brought it along, just in case.

“Oh, my goodness,” George Plimpton said to me, “I didn’t realize that this was still in print.” Or something like that. He inscribed it to me with his “Very Best Wishes.” He was very polite, and seemed like a very nice guy.

That’s how I got my copy of The Writer’s Chapbook autographed by George Plimpton. I imagine that the occasion was to me what having a baseball card autographed by a favorite star player might be to someone else. I also think that Mr. Plimpton would appreciate that comparison.

As I said, I have been toting Mr. Plimpton’s Chapbook around with me for nearly two decades, returning to it over and over again, just to look through it at random. However, I confess that I have only just recently begun to read from Mr. Plimpton’s larger body of work.

This brings to mind what I believe is one of the real joys of being a reader, a book person. It’s great to discover a new author for the first time or, in this case, to finally discover the work of an author whom you have been aware of for the longest time, but never read. It’s such a great feeling to realize that you have their complete works to look forward to. I did this a couple of years ago, when I discovered author and fly fisherman John Gierach (I was reviewing his then new book, Still Life with Brook Trout for Southern Distinction Magazine). It happened more recently, I am ashamed to say, when I read Philip Lee Williams’ wonderful novel, The Heart of a Distant Forest. I say ashamed, because I have known the author, and have been promoting his work, for nearly ten years.

But back to George Plimpton. In addition to his prose and the interesting stories that he has to tell, there is just simply so much to admire about the gentleman. Instead of going on and on in true hero-worship fashion, however, I would like to quote what others have to say about Mr. Plimpton, and why they admire him and his life’s work. What follows below, then, is taken from The Plimpton Project (, an excellent website dedicated to the life and works of George Plimpton. The quote is taken directly from the website’s explanation of who they (its creators) are and why they are doing what they are doing with their tribute to George Plimpton. It states:

Who in the blue blazes do we think we are?

We really aren’t anybody. We just like George Plimpton.
Not personally, we never actually knew him. But we like
everything that we know about him. His intelligence. His
Good humor. His spirit.

We like the way he attacked life with gusto and grace.

We appreciate how he proved that a funny upper crust accent
and a rather fancy vocabulary doesn’t make you any less of a
real man. (If nothing else, Plimpton’s life proves that once upon
a time a man walked the Earth who could both read poetry and
throw a football).

We admire the way he embodied everything that a man of letters
is supposed to be; curious and articulate, brave and wise.

We are thankful to the way he ceaselessly promoted other writers
and artists and how, through his own writings and publications,
became a teacher, guide and inspiration to countless others (even
those he never met, like, for instance, us).

And, finally, we believe a life such as his is worth continued
celebration. Because here was a man who threw himself
tirelessly into the gaping maw of life, fighting onward, ever
smiling, like the truest of gentlemen.

Me too. Hats off to the folks at The Plimpton Project. I hope that they succeed in getting a statue of George placed somewhere in New York City.

Now, returning to my blog. George Plimpton will be both a theme and inspiration. That said, and after having begun to read his work in earnest, I have been so pleased to discover that I have a few things in common with this particular hero of mine. Maybe this is just something we (us, you, me) look for where our heroes are concerned.

So, here they are—ten things that I have in common with George Plimpton:

1. Books, literature, authors. Obviously, Mr. Plimpton’s career speaks for itself. Me, I have had the good fortune to make my living these past ten years in promoting authors and selling books, and generally being around book people. I love to read books.

2. Real Men Read. George Plimpton was the embodiment of this idea. He lived it. He certainly believed it. Me too. I mean, I believe it. I don’t know how close I may have come so far to living it. Back in 1997, when I first started into bookselling, I had a nametag that I wore out on the sales floor of the bookstore where I worked (the biggest book store in Arizona). Underneath the company name on my nametag I had taped a little piece of paper on which I had typed, in very small print, REAL MEN READ. I still have that nametag.

3. Sport. George Plimpton wrote for Sports Illustrated. He boxed professionally, played professional football, baseball, and hockey, and tried out for the Olympics. I like sports, though I was never much of an athlete in school. I did place fourth in the Georgia State Wrestling Finals in 1980 for the 123 lb. weight class. It was my senior year in high school, and my first year on the wrestling team. I think that I won maybe three matches that year. At one of our home matches, the coach let me lead the team out on to the mat for our warm-up routine. As we entered the gym, me in the lead, I tripped on the edge of the mat and fell down. As far as how I ended up as a State finalist, that had nothing to do with me. At the regional finals, one of my competitors was disqualified before we even had our match. I think that it may have had something to do with his not having made his weight. In any event, I don’t know how it happened, but I was given an automatic fourth place in the regional competition, and got to go on to compete in the State finals in Dahlonega. I was eliminated in the first round of competition at the State Finals by a wrestler who only had one arm. He pinned me. I was not very good. On a more positive note, in 1985 I was an undergraduate at what was then Georgia Southern College during the glory days of coach Irk Russell’s football program. Go Eagles!

4. Editor. George Plimpton was editor of The Paris Review. Back in the early eighties I was editor of The Bent Tree, the student-run newspaper at Clayton Jr. College (on the south side of Atlanta). I know it sounds like pretty small potatoes, but due to the talents and assertiveness of the school’s then Director of Student Activities (and perhaps also due to the school’s proximity to the Atlanta airport) Clayton always had a yearly line-up of top-flight speakers visiting the school. As editor of the student-run newspaper, I had the opportunity to conduct one-on-one interviews with the likes of Christopher Lasch, John Houseman, David Broder, and Jeff Greenfield, and even had an opportunity to go nose to nose with Cal Thomas (who creamed me). I thought I was pretty big league at the time.

5. Fireworks. George Plimpton loved fireworks. As I understand it, he was even appointed Commissioner of Fireworks for New York City by the City’s mayor. I have at least one good fireworks story. In 1988, I was serving as the Executive Director of the Tybee Island, Georgia Chamber of Commerce. It sounds like a big deal, but it was actually just an internship, the final requirement for a master’s degree in public administration. The pay was internship pay, which required me to supplement my income (bar tender, movie extra, stage actor, jury member in a kidnapping case, a position as an assistant banquets manager at a luxury hotel over in Savannah, and selling ads for a small local magazine—all in one calendar year). Still, it was an interesting job. My office (in a trailer) was just across the street from the beach and Spanky’s seaside bar (where I was once invited to help judge a bikini contest). As part of the arrangements for my internship, the City of Tybee allowed me to live for a time in the top floor of the former quarters of the Tybee lighthouse keeper. I had to share the bathroom with the general public, and the occasional sand spur in the carpet was torture on my bare feet, but it was rent-free, and I had a 150-foot tall lighthouse in my backyard. But back to fireworks. As Director of the Chamber of Commerce, I helped arrange the yearly Fourth of July fireworks on the beach extravaganza. We worked in conjunction with the local volunteer fire department. Since we—the Chamber—paid for it, the fire chief invited me out to the firing line to light one of the first fireworks. Cool, I thought, and I got to wear all the fireman stuff. Two things about the event stand out in my mind. First, I discovered that fireworks (the really big ones) are not shaped like rockets, like in the cartoons. They are round, like a softball, or maybe a really big grapefruit. The second thing that I remember most was looking at one of these fireworks laying on the ground about three feet in front of me. Lit. And the fire chief yelling in my ear, “Ya’ll ruuuun!!”

6. Participatory Journalism. George Plimpton invented it. I once took a stab at it. Back in 1990, I decided that I wanted to see what it was like to get bitten by a rattlesnake, then write about the experience. I did my research. I spoke over the telephone with a doctor at the state poison control center at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta. I made the call from the school where I was teaching at the time. I spent the first ten minutes of the conversation assuring the people on the other end of the line that, although I was a teacher calling the poison control center from my school, they could be assured that no child had in fact been bitten by a snake. Once I had accomplished that, I spoke to a doctor about what happens to a person when he does get bitten by a rattlesnake. Of course, I didn’t tell the doctor that it was my intention to attempt to deliberately get bitten by a rattlesnake. I just wanted to have good information. I didn’t want to go off on the project half-cocked, or appear sloppy or irresponsible. The doctor’s description of what occurs with a serious rattlesnake bite put some doubts in my mind about the project, I’ll admit. I also learned through my research that the state of Georgia has three kinds of rattlesnakes, in addition to three other poisonous snakes, including coral snakes, a cousin of the cobra (see below). I organized a canoe/camping trip into the Okefenokee Swamp, in the southeast corner of the State. For good measure, the overnight expedition included a one-time photographer for the National Geographic. To make a long story short, we didn’t see a single snake during the two days we were in the swamp. Just as well. I don’t think that I could have gone through with it. Some years later, when I was working at the bookstore in Tucson, one of my friends at work, Henry, went hiking with his girlfriend in one of the area canyons. They stopped to rest, and Henry sat down on a baby rattlesnake. It bit him on the buttocks. He and his girlfriend then had to hike out of the canyon, and then drive him to the hospital. He later told me that it was the sickest he had ever been in his life, and that it had left a nasty place on his backside. I took his word for it.

7. Walter Mittyisms. George Plimpton seemed to have a limitless list of things that he wanted to try, and that he dreamt of doing. And a pretty long and impressive list of those things that he went and did. I have a pretty good list myself. Most notably, delving into the world of espionage. My interest here is twofold. First, from the real world, national security, and public policy standpoint. Second, like many people, I find the whole range of popular images, stories, etc. concerning the Spy World to be very interesting and entertaining. I am grateful to the University of Georgia Center for Continuing Education, and the FBI’s Atlanta Division (through their Citizen’s Academy) for indulging me in these particular interests. I suppose that I am what one might call an intelligence buff.

8. Africa and Snakes. George Plimpton has some terrific stories about his travels in Africa (birding) and snakes (India). I once stepped on a black mamba in Africa. I love saying that. I once stepped on a black mamba. In 1997, my wife took us from Tucson, Arizona to the southern African country of Malawi. She was there for work and school. I was just tagging along. We lived in an AID house in Lilongwe, the capitol city. We were supposed to be there for a year. But the paperwork went belly-up, and we ended up only staying for a month. So, anyway, one afternoon while I was walking back to our house from the city center (Lilongwe is kind of spread out, with the bush separating big parts of the town), I heard a swishing in the grass along the road just in front of me. I glanced up to see a long, skinny tail disappearing in the grass (away from me, thank goodness) just mere feet in front of me. I froze. After I was sure that whatever it was (I could see clearly that it was a snake) had moved off, I walked home. All of the evidence suggested that it was a black mamba. To this day, my wife rolls her eyes at me when I tell the story. I swear that it really happened. I have visited the reptile house at the Atlanta Zoo a number of times since then. They have a black mamba (my five-year-old daughter’s second favorite). They also have a pretty impressive king cobra (my daughter’s favorite). The point is, I know what a black mamba looks like. One would think that my wife would believe me. After all, even in the public nature preserve that is situated right in the heart of Lilongwe, there are signs warning people of the presence of spitting cobras. The signs even have little drawings of coiled cobras spitting venom. Maybe that’s what I actually came close to stepping on. I once stepped on a SPITTING COBRA in Africa. Don’t even get me started on the killer bees and crocodiles. George Plimpton. Sir Richard Francis Burton. Me.

9. Acting. George Plimpton appeared in ten feature films (according to wikipedia), and on numerous television programs. In 1988, my job with the Tybee Island Chamber of Commerce was responsible for my having a short acting career (I was doing about anything at the time to make extra money). Firstly, the Chamber assisted a film crew that was on the Island filming The Judas Project. I was invited to be an extra. The film is essentially the Messiah story. In this instance, however, it does not take place two thousand years ago in the Middle East, but in the late twentieth century in Coastal Georgia. There are characters named Pete, Jude and, yes, Jesse. I appear on screen as one of the umbrella people in attendance at the sermon on the beach. I’m not making this up. There are some nice shots of Savannah. On the set of Judas, I met several people affiliated with the Savannah Theater Company. This led to me getting the lead in the Theater’s production of O. Henry’s ‘The Ransom of Red Chief’. I got to play a ten year-old boy. My role allowed me to break things and hurt people. I was also allowed to play around with real gunpowder, in a public building filled with local school children. My role as Red Chief required me to have bright red hair. My new theatre friends applied the color using a special hairspray. The hairspray washed out easily with water after each performance, then I would dash back to work at the Chamber of Commerce. I remember one performance, though, when we were just about ready to go on stage and discovered that we were out of the special red hairspray. We had to make do in a pinch using red base paint, like a circus clown would use. Except it wasn’t going on my face. My theatre friends smeared a huge amount of it in my hair, all the while telling me how easy it would come out. I attended a meeting at the Savannah Chamber of Commerce later that day, with my hair matted to my hair like a greasy auburn bowl, and with red ears. Red ears. Later, the folks who got me on as an extra in The Judas Project called me up when Glory came to town about being an extra in that film. So, I have worked with Mathew Broderick, Densel Washington, and Morgan Freeman. And I got to be an officer in the Union army. Off in the background, my back and chiseled chin present another Union officer with the gift of a baseball bat at a Christmas party while Col. Shaw (Broderick) haggles with two wormy requisition officers about shoes for his troops.

10. George Plimpton had a brief encounter with the porn industry.

Real Men Read.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

An Audience

A friend in Japan sent me an email this week informing me that he had visited my new blog. My first reader, that I am aware of.

My condolences go out this week to my wife's family. Her grandmother passed away. She was 101 years old.

I am reading Blogging for Dummies by Susannah Gardner and Shane Birley (2nd edition; Wiley Publishing). Does anyone have a recommendation for similar titles?

Remember, Real Men Read.