Day 114: Likely to appear in Profilia: Kevin Tallon, deaf prizefighter

gloves.jpg

The oldest piece likely to make into the Profilia anthology was written in 1988. It's a profile of a deaf boxer named Kevin Tallon, who, when I met him, was fighting in unsanctionted Meanest Man contests. He went on to an undistinguished pro career. I watched him train one day.

When he can, Tallon trains at the Covington Youth Center in Kentucky. He walks down an alley beside a Goodyear dealer on Madison Avenue and up a steep flight of stairs to a room dominated by a boxing ring with sagging ropes. Fight posters and yellowing newspaper clippings cover the walls, along with eight-by-ten glossy prints of local heroes such as heavyweight Tony Tubbs, who trained here. A radio in a corner blares music from a black station in Cincinnati. There are holes in the ceiling and the walls could use some paint, but this room has the basics: a ring, three heavy bags, two speed bags, Lou George and Henry Ward.

Lou manages the place. Henry is the trainer. Lou’s wife, Karen, put up the money for the gym after Lou had to retire from his job with a car dealer. He charges each kid $20 a month to train here. He admits that he and Henry are strapped for funds, but if a boy does not have the money, he can come anyway and they will teach him to box. Lou loves to talk about boxing. He looks gray and worn until he describes a fighter. Then he jabs the air and circles an imaginary ring, light as a cat burglar who has just stolen another 20 years of youth.

He opens the gym each afternoon at 4:30. First to wander in on this day are two pale white kids with serious eyes, a shy black kid who has just started at the gym, and Tallon, in gray shorts and white thermal undershirt. Lou George likes him. “Kevin’s one helluva boy, when you can sit him down.” He complains that Tallon does not train enough. “I don’t care when these guys say they got a heavy bag in the basement, or a speed bag. It ain’t like being in the gym. The smell, the odor, watching the other fighters. At home, there’s no Ward. There’s no me. Now, that Houser, he’s training.”

Houser is Ron Houser, a 20-year-old heavyweight who is Tallon’s bane. Tallon has won more than 50 tough-guy bouts, by his own tally. At the Tough Man World Championships in Dayton, Ohio last year—sanctioned as a world championship by lord only knows—he placed second. When Tallon counts his defeats on one large hand, Houser gets three fingers. The fighters are well matched from a storyteller’s standpoint. Kevin is flashy, good looking, expressive, the ladies’ choice. Houser is silent, expressionless, menacing.

Lou knows how much Tallon wants to beat Houser and tries to help, but he scoffs at tough-guy fights. He thinks Tallon is wasting his talent. But he cannot convince him to commit to a genuine pro career. Tallon, he says, could be “a helluva thing.” The helluva thing he has in mind is a good white heavyweight. One of boxing’s shames is the constant hunt for white fighters to beat the African Americans and Hispanics who dominate the sport. Lou George cares as much for the black kids in his gym as for the white ones. His best fighter is black. But he knows the realities of the fight business.

... Kevin would need work just to fight the top amateurs. George puts him in the practice ring to spar with the current pride of the gym, a 139-pounder felicitously named George Little. Tallon fights better than 95 percent of the men on the street, but George Little is part of that other 5 percent. Before he has them spar, George tells Tallon to work hard. He tells Little, “Don’t hurt him.” Little is fast as a cobra. He ducks or slips Tallon’s punches. He stays upright, quick on the balls of his feet, eyes sharp and intent. It is obvious he could land punches on Tallon’s face almost at will if George allowed it. After four rounds, a sweat-drenched Tallon climbs out of the ring with disgusted look.

... A fight man like Lou George has reason to jeer at a Meanest Man Contest. But for Tallon, it is a means to an end. He pulls out a scrapbook and shows off photos of some of his fights. In one corner of the living room are 15 trophies, each with a small gold-plated boxer on top. And whenever someone asks his son, Matt, what his daddy does, the little boy puffs out his chest and says, “My dad’s a boxer.”

Day 112: Texture

Issue No. 9 of the 10,000 Days Newsletter is about to roll off the presses. The pixel presses. If you'd like to subscribe, and I hope you do, just look to the top of this page and follow the simple instructions. The new one comes out tomorrow morning.

This was the essay from Issue No. 8, some musing on texture.


Newsletter logo.jpg

I recently listened to a BBC radio documentary on P.J. Harvey's process in writing and composing her music. She noted at one point that for initial recording she likes working with an old four-track cassette deck. Digital production comes at a later stage, as it must, but she wants to start with the analog sound. Among her reasons is her fondness for how tape hiss adds texture to the recording.

For the last few years, audiophiles have been buying so much vinyl it has become worthwhile to reopen mothballed record-pressing plants. The inherent scratchy pops and clicks produced by the stylus tracking the grooves? Desired over the icy gloss of CDs. Texture.

Digital photographers have the option of applying filters, with Photoshop or On1 or Nik or smartphone apps, that add film grain to the image. Many of these filters are intended to mimic specific film stock. What photographers are after is the added texture and dimensionality that grain imparts to a film image. We want to counteract the way digital images, especially pictures that have been over-sharpened and exhibit an unnatural flatness and razor edges.

Cartoonish flatness without texture is the hallmark of digiscene. (Starting with politics and public discourse, but that's for another day.) Digital photographs, especially when viewed on a screen. Digital cinema. The audio quality of CDs and sound files and streamed music. Ebooks and online magazines and newspapers, lacking the texture of ink on paper. Compare email to analog correspondence; no textured stationery, no envelope thickened by a letter, no misaligned stamp, no unevenness in the flow of ink.

Friendship has been flattened to friending on Facebook (you know you're headed for trouble when a noun gets verbed), reduced to flat little thumbs-up graphics and emojis. Reader response to stories is gauged not in actual human interaction but in clicks and likes and dashed-off comments and 50-word "reviews." Short fiction, journalism, informative lists, reports, interviews, documentary work, travelogue, humor, all flattened into interchangeable "content." Bang it out, plug it in, sent it out, next.

There's a new territory appearing on modern maps: The Digital Flats. Please give it four stars on iTunes, that really helps.

Day 111: Zeynep Tufekci

Ever heard of Zeynep Tufekci? Yeah, me neither. But she's a Turkish who studies the implications for society of emergent technology, and she made this astute observation:

The most effective forms of censorship today involve meddling with trust and attention, not muzzling speech itself. As a result, they don’t look much like the old forms of censorship at all. They look like viral or coordinated harassment campaigns, which harness the dynamics of viral outrage to impose an unbearable and disproportionate cost on the act of speaking out. They look like epidemics of disinformation, meant to undercut the credibility of valid information sources. They look like bot-fueled campaigns of trolling and distraction, or piecemeal leaks of hacked materials, meant to swamp the attention of traditional media.

Day 110: My science fiction risk proposition

When I was a kid, for five or six years I was mad for science fiction. I read Dune, Stranger in a Strange Land, the Foundation trilogy. I read Anne McCaffrey and Poul Anderson and Harry Harrison and Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury. I subscribed to a pulp magazine, Analog Science Fiction and Fact. I was member of the Science Fiction Book Club, which sent me cheap editions of new and classic novels for a few dollars each.

Then I lost interest at around age 16. Moved on, read more literature, more narrative journalism, more class assignments like Antigone and Catcher in the Rye. In my undergraduate years, I think I read only one book that could be classed as science fiction: Slaughterhouse-Five. Read it in a Philosophy 101 class, so how cool was that TA?

Decades went by before I discovered William Gibson and found that cyberpunk was to my liking. That led to me sampling other authors—Neal Stephenson, China Miéville, M. John Harrison, writers who displayed expansive imagination, intelligence, and willingness to grapple with immense ideas. It was exciting. I tried Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter and thought it was brilliant. I watched the film Arrival and through that found the extraordinary short-story writer Ted Chiang. I finally started on Ursula K. Le Guin and was beguiled. Admired the nerdy spectrum-tinged virtuosity of Greg Egan. I didn’t care that academics and critics and literary tastemakers disdained sci-fi—the genre’s scruffy, outsider, punk vibe made it more, not less, appealing. I had no trouble following an Alice McDermott novel with Phillip K. Dick, or reading Saul Bellow’s Dangling Man and then plunging straight into Kraken. I became a fan of the Blade Runner movies, and of The Expanse and Counterpart and the most recent Battlestar Galactica.

In my office, off to my right on the shelves next to my writing desk, you will find every book written by William Gibson, five of them in hardcover. I’ve assembled a good assortment of Miéville and Egan and M. John Harrison and plan to buy every one that I don’t already own. I’m buying the Library of America editions of Le Guin as fast as LOA can issue them. I’ll throw down 20 bucks for anything by those writers with no anxiety.

But devoting attention to a raggedy bunch of outsiders means wading through a lot of meagre work. I have learned to sample even acclaimed contemporary sci-fi books and authors only when Amazon offers a Kindle edition for $1.99. What got me excited for the second time about science fiction (or speculative fiction or weird fiction or transrealism or call it whatever you want, I don’t care) was the work of a subset of exceptionally smart and skilled artists like Gibson, Miéville, and Le Guin. I ended up with an overestimation of the genre's current practitioners; so much of what I've found in a deeper dive has, I'm afraid, reinforced its bad reputation. It is just bad—emotionally vapid, clichéd, poorly reasoned, populated by two-dimensional characters who engage in stilted, banal dialogue that makes me wonder if the authors have ever paid attention to how people actually speak. I get no further than six or eight pages and delete the book from my iPad.

Case in point: a young man with more than a half-dozen published novels to his credit and a growing reputation among the sci-fi cognoscenti, an author I’ll call LR. I’d been reading about him for a while when Amazon offered one of his novels for the magic $1.99. Last night I finished Elisa Gabbert’s The Word Pretty and decided to give LR a trial read. Fifteen minutes later I put it down, probably for good.

The novel begins

“Dag Calhoun sipped his third macchiato and considered that fickle bitch, power. The creamy sweetness of the steamed milk cut the earth acidity of the espresso. A solo bassist plucked jazzy scales in the cafe behind him. A balmy spring breeze ruffled Dag’s thick brown hair, the gust an unexpected blessing in this country ravaged by the twin specters of drought and violence.

Oh dear.

Really, “that fickle bitch, power”? The sentence reads like the author has taken to heart the hack advice that the first line of a story must grab the reader. (Advice to new writers out there: never grab readers; it is impolite and likely to be misconstrued.) The clichéd tough-guy tone invites derision, and embodies another sort of derision best avoided unless you have a very good reason to invoke it.

Okay, so what does the improbably named Dag make of this fickle bitch? Hard to say because he seems mostly to be considering his macchiato, and considering it in the bland, flat prose of consumer food magazines. That solo bassist plucking “jazzy scales”? There’s no such thing as a “jazzy” scale—scales are the same in any music. You can employ them to create jazzy riffs or jazzy melodies, but the wording here tells me the writer doesn’t know when he’s out of his depth, which does not bode well. Dag’s thick brown hair ruffled by a breeze? Can’t happen. A breeze will barely move thick hair, much less “ruffle” it. And a breeze doesn’t gust—if it gusts, it’s wind, it’s not a mere breeze. By the time I got to “this country ravaged by the twin specters of drought and violence,” I was groaning inside. A specter is either a ghost or a frightening prospect, neither of which, I would maintain, could do much ravaging, even in a stiff ruffling breeze.

So in one short graph, LR has convinced me he does not pay attention. He does not pay attention to language, he hasn’t paid enough attention to music to write about it, he doesn’t pay attention to tone, and he doesn’t pay attention to what he has his protagonist doing.

The third graph leads with the banal, “History was badly plotted and written by committee.” Am I supposed to be impressed by this insight? Then we learn that when Dag visits this particular part of Mexico, it “never failed to remind him of the delicate, capricious cascade of events that had shaped the geopolitical fortunes of the Americas.” Oh really. Well, Dag is one deep, if overly caffeinated, fellow, isn’t he? We learn in the next sentence that Dag is here to “rest a finger on the scale.” So I gather he is a professional cliché-monger.

Perhaps LR really is in control of these sentences and means to send up young Dag, set him up as a shallow, self-impressed twit on his way to a fall. But the author does nothing in the next few pages to convince me that he’s a writer in sufficient command of his prose to be deliberate in what he’s done so far. Nor does he present anything to suggest he’s an observer worth my attention. An elderly woman at a nearby table, half of an elderly couple, has “lustrous skin and elegant features that hinted at Mayan heritage.” Huh? I’ve no idea what the Mayans looked like, and I’m not convinced that LR does either, so what does that say, exactly? What am I supposed to see? “Trust emanated from the couple like scent off a rose.” Oh, please. Dag somehow dips a toothpick into his macchiato and draws on his napkin—mind you, draws on a cheap paper napkin with coffee for ink—a sketch that “lacked mimetic detail” but “captured something essential about their rapport.” Yeah. I see that all the time in Starbucks.

And what of Dag’s consideration of that fickle bitch, power? Beats me. He seems to have forgotten all about it. At least the author has. Three pages in and I am now convinced that life is too short for any more of this.

Day 109: Rebecca Solnit sees right through me

Thinking is generally thought of as doing nothing in a production-oriented culture, and doing nothing is hard to do. It’s best done by disguising it as doing something, and the something closest to doing nothing is walking. Walking itself is the intentional act closest to the unwilled rhythms of the body, to breathing and the beating of the heart. It strikes a delicate balance between working and idling, being and doing. It is a bodily labor that produces nothing but thoughts, experiences, arrivals.

Day 108: Progress on Profilia

I'm making progress on Profilia, the forthcoming anthology of profiles that I've written over the past 35 years. Less than steady, better than fitful, but progress all the same.

I don't think I've published the shortlist of candidates, so here you go:

  • Kay Jamison, psychiatrist and author
  • Rosemary Mahoney, writer
  • Park Dietz, security consultant and expert on serial killers
  • Jonathan Haas, drummer
  • Leon Fleisher, pianist
  • Matthew Burtner, composer
  • Roy Blount Jr., writer
  • Barclay Tagg, thoroughbred horse trainer
  • Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, network scientist
  • Raoul Middleman, painter
  • James Taylor, historian of carnival sideshows
  • Sidney Mintz, food anthropologist
  • Gustav Meier, conductor
  • Richard Oles, fencing coach
  • Manuel Barrueco, guitarist
  • Dan Dubelman, indy rocker
  • Stephen Dixon, writer
  • Drew Daniel, literature professor and musician
  • Carol Graham, happiness economist
  • Avi Rubin, computer scientist and poker player
  • Tim Kreider, essayist and cartoonist
  • George Kennedy, swim coach
  • Oscar Bettison, composer
  • Denis Wirtz, biophysicist
  • Larry Hoffman, composer and guitarist
  • Kathy Edin, sociologist
  • Walter Murch, film editor and polymath
  • Kevin Tallon, deaf boxer
  • Chuck Keiger, sign painter

Twenty-nine candidates. Heavy on writers and musicians, but a workable variety I'll need at least 15, I think, maybe more, depending on how long a book I want to produce.

Further bulletins as events warrant.

Day 105: Elisa Gabbert

Have just begun The Word Pretty, Elisa Gabbert's newest collection of essays. I can't remember who or what put me on to it—someone mentioned it in a podcast, maybe? I dunno—nor do I remember when I bought it, though that had to be recently. Whatever the story, I'm taken with the first entry, "Personal Data: Notes on Keeping a Notebook," and if the rest of the book is as good, be forewarned, I'll be writing more about it here.

The first paragraph of "Personal Data," and thus the book's opening paragraph:

Writers’ habit don’t just emerge, we cultivate them—it’s first aspirational, then superstitious. Years ago, in graduate school, I noticed how certain poet friends would casually, but with intent, remove a small notebook from their jacket pocket or bag and jot something down. I noticed it the way you notice how someone smokes—the glamor in the gesture, and how it isn’t personal but referential; it aligns one with a tradition. I started keeping notebooks so I could be a writer who keeps a notebook.

That seems sharply observed to me, wry and true. I also like this bit, from the same first page (the book starts strong), which makes me want to meet Gabbert's mother:

… When I was seven or eight, I confessed to my mother that I couldn’t stop narrating my life back to myself; I thought it meant I was crazy. No, she said, it means you’re a writer.

Well, yes.

In a subsequent essay, Gabbert notes that her mother has a recurring dream of flunking a sociology class. Definitely want to meet her.


Elisa Gabbert's site lives here.

Day 104: Notebook entry from May 24, 2017

Chade-Meng Tan, mindfulness trainer at Google, has an exercise he calls “just note gone.” He instructs, notice the end of an experience and its subsequent absence. After a bell rings, notice the absence of bell sound after the vibrations decay. After a deer vanishes in the woods, note that is now missing from where it was. Attend to absence.

And so in writing, attend to the narrative negative space. Invoke the hole in experience when something ends.

Inverse noticing. Notice not what is newly present—change by addition—but what is newly absent—change by subtraction.

Day 103: Film editor Walter Murch for Profilia

Another profile on the list for possible inclusion in the anthology Profilia, which is coming latter this summer, is one of my last pieces for Johns Hopkins Magazine, about film editor, sound designer, and polymath Walter Murch. Here's a bit that begins with the journalist Lawrence Weschler:

Weschler sometimes talks about how Murch used to carry around a cloth sack filled with slips of paper. He would extend the pouch and urge you to take out one of the slips. Each one carried a snippet of text, something Murch thought you might find interesting or provocative: “Translate the invisible wind by the water it sculpts in passing—Robert Bresson.” “If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it—Albert Einstein.” Receive email from Murch and you will discover that to each note, Murch appends not an email signature but an image or curious fact. In my correspondence with him, he has sent a photo of a 4,650-year-old pyramid at Meidum, Egypt; a portrait of Vasili Arkhipov with the story of how, as a Soviet submarine officer in 1962, Arkhipov vetoed the impending launch of a nuclear torpedo at a U.S. aircraft carrier during the Cuban missile crisis; a diagram he devised to show the atomic particles of the standard model of physics; and a microphotograph identified only as “cross-section of Gustav Klimt’s neurons.” All byproducts of time spent in various rabbit holes.

“Right now, I’m obsessed with the object called Plimpton 322, which is a piece of clay with cuneiform mathematics on it that seems to indicate that 3,200 years ago, the Babylonian Sumerians knew about the Pythagorean theorem and had a kind of trigonometry,” he says. (Pythagoras, again. With Murch, things have a way of coming back around for new convergences, as you will see.) “I’ve been riding that particular hobby horse for the last couple of months. I wrote a paper on the Pythagorean theorem for a course in high school and probably ran across Plimpton 322 then. It was in the news again two or three months ago for some research that some mathematicians have done in Australia. There’s a real tug-of-war between people who believe that it is a trigonometric table and people who think that it isn’t. So, I was trying to determine for myself what it was.” He has been using mathematics software to work out what might have been the Sumerian math. “It’s written in sexagesimal mathematics, which is how the Sumerians worked, base 60 rather than base 10, so you have to convert the numbers. Once I did that, it all seemed pretty clear to me. I finally came down on the side of yes, it is definitely a trigonometric table. It has what we’d call tangents and secants and that kind of stuff.”

The tablet, he says, looks to be an exercise book that would be given to a student. It has four columns and 15 rows. One column is the number of each row, one the length of the hypotenuse of the triangle, one the length of the “short” leg of the triangle. “And the last column is the square of the tangent of the angle shared by the hypotenuse and the short leg, and this would permit a smart student to derive the length of the missing long leg of the triangle,” Murch says. “It’s just a remarkable thing to think that 3,200 years ago, people were dealing with pretty sophisticated mathematics. Then it all seemed to disappear. There was something called the Bronze Age collapse around 1200 B.C. that decimated the civilizations of the Near East, and a lot of that information was lost and had to be recovered later. It was kind of like our Dark Ages in Europe.”

He is patient while he waits to see whether anyone in astrophysics takes up his ideas about Titius-Bode. “These things take time,” he says. “I’m perfectly happy in my rabbit hole. I have a day job making movies. I don’t watch television, so I have to do something in the evening. My wife knits, and I sit here doing pyramid stuff or Plimpton 322 stuff. She shows me her knitting and I show her my diagrams and we each say, ‘That’s nice, dear.’”

Day 102: Could go either way

Neil Postman:

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumble puppy.

Which set of anxieties seems the most prescient? Feels like a tossup to me.

Day 101: The first hundred days

lavalamp.jpg

A century of days into this project and I’m starting to sort out a few things: best use of this blog, how to structure a day when the work has no deadlines (for the moment), how to wall off hours for reading and writing, how much time I am allowed to stare at my lavalamp. I’m well into assembling Profilia, have my first assignments of the year (an essay on editing university magazines and a workshop I’ll be co-teaching in New Orleans in a few weeks), and am thinking about changing hosts for my photo gallery and store. Ah, and planning an October trip to Churchill, Manitoba to photograph polar bears.

So far this year, readers have come to 10,000 Days from 60 nations, including Azerbaijan, Nepal, Albania, Grenada, and the Seychelles. I am grateful to all of you, especially those who have subscribed to my newsletter. Thank you for reading.

Oh, look at the lavalamp now

Day 98: Newsletter No. 8 ships tomorrow

The spiffy latest edition of The 10,000 Days Newsletter ships early tomorrow morning. Here is the lead piece from the previous issue. Want to subscribe? Sure you do. Just look to grey bar atop this page and follow the instructions.

Parallel Universe

I have been on the road for the last nine days, which is why this issue of the newsletter is a tad late. Yesterday, I was perusing the magazine rack in a Cincinnati bookstore when I happened on what appeared to be its Male Anxiety section. Lots of titles about guns and the rugged outdoor life and combat readiness and home security. Such as the one shown below, Skillset—Redefining the Alpha Lifestyle. More alarming was Recoil, which appeared to be dedicated to reaching an audience of white men who are convinced they must be armed to the teeth to repel, I don't know, hordes of Guatemalan children or ISIS in Chicago or the US government when it finally obeys its New World Order overlords and comes for all the guns. Recoil was a thick—like a half-inch of heavy stock—expensive journal fat with advertising for companies shilling products that could have only one purpose—equipping you to kill people, and kill them in clusters.

What these magazines play on is the (apparently) rampant fear among uncounted American men that not only their status as king of the mountain but their masculine identities are in mortal peril. Unless they are vigilant, prepared, and equipped with enough ammunition to gun down the Macy's Thanksgiving parade, at any moment they mighty lose everything that matters to them—their guns, their women, their country, their balls. Lose them to the government, to black people, to East Coast elitists like me, I don't know, the enemy is not well defined.

That publishers and advertisers will cynically exploit this anxiety should be no surprise. But that so many American men, many of whom surely had upbringings similar to mine, see life through this prism of paranoia and fundamental insecurity? That sets me back. There's a parallel universe out there, and that's a problem. What's a problem is that I have to come across magazines like these to realize it's out there. Nobody I know, not one person, would have anything in common with a subscriber to Recoil or Skillset, any contact with that level of alienation and that way of measuring what makes a man a man. I might as well be reading field notes on another species of hominid. And that creeps me out in so many ways.

Day 97: Gass on Porter

William H. Gass, writing about Katherine Anne Porter:

Style, I should like to protest, is the result of that “exactness of choice” that Porter exhibits. Whether unconsciously or by intent, the writer chooses subjects, adopts a tone, considers an order for the release of meaning, arrives at the rhythm, selects a series of appropriate sounds, determines the diction and measures the pace, turns the referents of certain words into symbols, establishes connections with companionable paragraphs, sizes up each sentence’s intended significance, and, if granted good fortune because each decision might have been otherwise, achieves not just this or that bit of luminosity or suggestiveness but her own unique lines of language, lines that produce the desired restitution of the self.

Day 95: Rebecca Solnit on walking

Thinking is generally thought of as doing nothing in a production-oriented culture, and doing nothing is hard to do. It’s best done by disguising it as doing something, and the something closest to doing nothing is walking. Walking itself is the intentional act closest to the unwilled rhythms of the body, to breathing and the beating of the heart. It strikes a delicate balance between working and idling, being and doing. It is a bodily labor that produces nothing but thoughts, experiences, arrivals.