Day 147: Excerpt from "The Man Who Signed the City"

Creation of The Man Who Signed the City: Time Spent with Remarkable People, continues apace. At least, what passes for apace with me. I'm simulteanously revising text, researching typography and book design, mocking up covers, exploring publishing platforms, testing software, and pondering which model Tesla to buy with all the royalties that soon will be surging into my account.

That last one, not so much.

One of the profiles to be included is from 2012—essayist and cartoonist Tim Kreider. Here is how that one opens:

It is simplistic but not entirely inaccurate to say that Tim Kreider drank his way through his 20s, drew his way through his 30s, and has been writing his way through his 40s. As a drinker in his 20s he was, by his own testimony, depressed, but by his friends’ testimony, still fun to be around. As a cartoonist in his 30s he was an adept caricaturist whose drawings were frequently puerile, as frequently obscene, and savagely funny unless you count yourself among the right wing of the Republican Party, in which case you probably regard them as filthy, blasphemous, treasonous, and worth collecting just in case the day comes when he can be prosecuted.

As a writer, however, Kreider reveals himself to be well-read, smart, a fundamentally decent and kind man possessed of rare candor, a pitiless sense of his own shortcomings, and a gift for friendship that makes you wish your number were stored in his cellphone. This summer, Kreider published We Learn Nothing, a collection of 14 essays the author describes as a collection of thoughts about friendship and loss. There is indeed much in the essays about friends he still sees and friends who have drifted out of touch or cut him off, eccentric friends, and friends who were flat-out nuts. There is also an account of the author trying to feel some empathy for people he loathes at a Tea Party rally, his discovery in his 40s of two half-sisters he did not know he had, and a lovely, fond remembrance of a deceased friend who was beloved for the elaborate lies he told. There are rueful tales of Kreider’s hopeless love life; a tough, an unsparing account of an uncle who died in prison; and yet another telling of what he describes as the story he cannot escape, about the time he was nearly murdered in Crete.

The book provides substantial evidence that while Kreider was a good cartoonist, he is a superb essayist, a funny and fluent storyteller who wears his cultural literacy lightly, capable of references, in the same paragraph, to Friedrich Nietzsche, The Dude from the film The Big Lebowski, and Rebecca Solnit, all without affectation. To read “The Creature Walks Among Us,” “The Czar’s Daughter,” “Escape from Pony Island,” or “An Insult to the Brain” is to appreciate a mordant but affectionate observer of life’s rich pageant, and a craftsman who almost never puts a word wrong.

For example, here he is on the sudden recognition of falling in love: “Someone shows you the rabbit’s foot she just bought, explaining, ‘It was the last green one,’ or simply reaches out and takes your lapel to steady herself as the subway decelerates into the station, and you realize: Uh-oh.” On political intolerance: “One reason we rush so quickly to the vulgar satisfactions of judgment, and love to revel in our righteous outrage, is that it spares us from the impotent pain of empathy, and the harder, messier work of understanding.” On embarrassment, derived from observing a man with a very bad toupee: “Each of us has a Soul Toupee. The Soul Toupee is that thing about ourselves we are most deeply embarrassed by and like to think we have cunningly concealed from the world but which is, in fact, pitifully obvious to everybody who knows us. Contemplating one’s own Soul Toupee is not an exercise for the fainthearted.” On friendship: “This is one of the things we rely on our friends for: to think better of us than we think of ourselves. It makes us feel better, but it also makes us be better; we try to be the person they believe we are.”

Forthcoming July 1. Maybe. Let's says Julyish...

Day 135: The Book Formerly Known as Profilia

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Work continues apace on the anthology of profiles that I plan to publish this summer. My working title has been Profilia, or something more like Profilia: Encounters with Interesting People." That had the virtue of employing a distinctive word, distinctive because I made it up. (Though just today I came across a street usage: profilia, the act of liking every single thing on someone's Facebook page.) But I worried that it might mislead because it sounds Italian, or like some sort of unusual sexual predilection. Or is just mystifying and therefore offputting; I want readers to put the book down after they've started reading it, not before they even open it.

So, I am all but settled on a new title, one that makes use of the title of one of the anthologized pieces: The Man Who Signed the City: Time Spent with Remarkable People. I'm not committed to "remarkable"—that could become "interesting" or "fascinating" or "intriguing." Or, "people who were willing to talk to me."

The contents are all but set, too. One or two of these could drop off—right now this would weight in at around 90,000 words, not unreasonable for a book but a bit pricey to produce—but this could be the Table of Contents (the order will change):

  • Dan Dubelman, indie rock musician
  • Larry Hoffman, composer
  • Jonathan Haas, drummer
  • Drew Daniel, literature professor and electronic musician
  • Leon Fleisher, pianist
  • Stephen Dixon, novelist
  • Rosemary Mahoney, author and travel memoirist
  • Roy Blount Jr., humorist
  • Tim Kreider, essayist
  • Walter Murch, film editor and polymath
  • Raoul Middleman, painter
  • Chuck Keiger, sign painter
  • Avi Rubin, computer scientist and poker player
  • Barclay Tagg, thoroughbred trainer
  • Kevin Tallon, deaf boxer
  • George Kennedy, championship swim coach
  • James Taylor, historian of carnival sideshows
  • Park Dietz, forensic psychiatrist and serial killer expert
  • Sidney Mintz, food anthropologist
  • Denis Wirtz, biophysicist and cancer researcher
  • Kathy Edin, sociologist of extreme poverty

I think that's a pretty good lineup, don't you?

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

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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 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 19: Work in progress — Profilia

Barclay Tagg astride Funny Cide. Photograph by Barbara D. Livingston.

Barclay Tagg astride Funny Cide. Photograph by Barbara D. Livingston.

I have begun to read through profiles to select those I will include in my forthcoming anthology, working title Profilia. (Please suggest something better. Please.) This one is almost sure to make the cut: Barclay Tagg, thoroughbred trainer who nearly won the Triple Crown in 2003 with a big horse you may remember—Funny Cide.

How the piece opens:

Barclay Tagg slips into a stall in a barn at Belmont Park race track, near Elmhurst, N.Y. At 4:45 in the morning, Tagg, a trainer of thoroughbreds, is at work ahead of the sun but not ahead of nearby roosters, who are in full cry. He eases up to a filly named Highland Hope and slides his hands up and down the horse’s slender legs, feeling for heat—a sign of inflammation, perhaps an injury. He checks the flex of each ankle and knee. Highland Hope swings her head down and Tagg nudges it away with his arm. “Now and then one of them will reach around and bite you,” he says. “When she bites you on your bald head, it hurts. There’s a lot of nerves up there.” He stands and runs his hands over the horse’s glutes, to feel whether the muscles are knotted. If they’re sore, the horse will flinch. Tagg finds no problems and rubs the filly’s head. Then he moves to the next stall.

Barn 6, at the corner of Man o’ War Avenue and Count Fleet Road near Belmont’s track, holds most of Tagg’s horses. A strip of tape at each stall identifies the occupant. Hypnotist. Army Boots. Silver Clipper. Andy Boy. Wed in Dixie. Wild About Debbie. Funny Cide.

In 2000, the crop of thoroughbred foals numbered 37,587. Only 16 of them made it to the starting gate of the 2003 Kentucky Derby. Only one, of course, crossed the finish line first, and that one was a big chestnut gelding named Funny Cide. After more than 30 years of near ceaseless work, Barclay Tagg had won the world’s most famous race on his first try. Now, in the dark, Tagg runs his practiced hands down four of the most valuable legs in America, and finds no problems. No injuries sustained overnight. No ill effects from yesterday’s workout. No loose joints, no bubble on a knee, no tendons starting to bow. Good to go for another risky day. Every day is risky in this business. “Anybody who trains a horse is a pessimist, whether they admit it nor not,” Tagg says. “People say, ‘How does it feel to win the Kentucky Derby?’ Well, it makes you feel like maybe the whole 30 years wasn’t wasted.”