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 (http://plimptonproject.org), 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.

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