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 65: Work in progress—Profilia: Rosemary Mahoney

Another profile on the shortlist for inclusion in Profilia, the anthology of profiles what I will be publishing later this year. This time, writer Rosemary Mahoney, from 1992 on the appearance of her fine travel memoir of Ireland, Whoredom in Kimmage.

One of her more memorable Dublin experiences began in a women's bathroom at Trinity College, where she spent 20 minutes perched on a toilet, copying down a remarkable debate on lesbianism that had been scrawled, partly in eyeliner, on the stall. Included was a phone number, and later Mahoney dialed it. The number was for a lesbian hotline, which alerted her to J.J. Smythe's, one of Dublin's two lesbian pubs.

One night, Mahoney started to go there. She lost her nerve on the threshold and didn't enter, but on another night, she worked up the courage to walk in. What happened next is told in one of the funniest and most affecting chapters in Kimmage.

Her first stab at conversation goes like this:

"So what do you girls do?"

"Work in a prison."

"Prison! Nice!"

She then talks for a while with a gay woman named Freddy, who seems like one of the loneliest people in Ireland. Later that night, at closing time, Freddy says plaintively, "Can I ask you something, Rose? If you saw me again sometime, would you talk to me?"

It is Freddy who asks the question Mahoney has been dreading. "You're gay yourself, Rose?" Unsure what to say but afraid of appearing to be in the pub as a mere voyeur, Mahoney lies and says yes. Later, asked by someone else if she is bisexual, she says yes to that too. Before the night is over, she finds herself pulled onto the dance floor by a woman named Nora; as their slow-dance clinch becomes ever more intimate, Mahoney chastises herself: You deserve this.

Day 52: Work in progress — "Profilia"

I really have to find a better working title for this anthology collection. Profilia sounds too much like a psychologically troubling sexual practice.

That's something for later. Today an excerpt from one of the pieces that might make the cut, a profile of the self-proclaimed world's foremost solo timpanist, Jonathan Haas. Johnny H.

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Jonathan Haas sits in a room back stage at Carnegie Hall, and with his hands bangs out the drum solo to "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" on a tabletop. Those who were teenagers in the 1960s will know what that means. For those who weren't, "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" was a rock 'n' roll song, a 17-minute benchmark for all the young musicians who played high school dances in the late '60s. Only bands with real chops could play it. Haas was in that sort of band.

Now, in Carnegie Hall, he slaps the tom-tom rhythm on the table and sings the bass drum part. When he was a kid, he drove his parents nuts doing this; his sister once threatened to kill him if he didn't stop beating time on the furniture. Mom and Dad Haas finally gave up and bought him a drum set, no doubt to preserve the living room, and he's been drumming ever since. Drumming with the New York Pops. Frank Zappa. The American Symphony Orchestra. The Paul Taylor Dance Company. The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. His own jazz band, Johnny H. & The Prisoners of Swing.

Haas has unearthed and recorded classical percussion concertos and jazz music for timpani by Duke Ellington. He's done a rock tour with Emerson Lake & Palmer. Recorded jingles for Budweiser and VISA. Drummed on a tribute album to Black Sabbath. Won a Grammy for a Frank Zappa record, Zappa's Universe.

And that's just some of what keeps him busy. Jonathan Haas is two parts musician, one part teacher, one part entrepreneur. He now estimates that he plays with 24 ensembles. As director of the Peabody Conservatory percussion program, he takes the train down from New York to spend two days a week teaching in Baltimore. Summers he teaches at the Aspen Music School & Festival in Colorado. From the house he shares with his wife and three kids in Westchester County, he runs a record company, an instrument rental business, and a musicians' contracting company. He seems ever in motion. A friend once said to him, "Man, you've always got two wheels off the track." Haas grins as he recalls this. It's an image he likes.

A few people around New York have begun to call him "Johnny H.," his jazz-band moniker, and he likes that, too. The nickname's overtones of brashness and street-hustle fit him. Haas has never been shy about promoting his career, and never much concerned about who might dislike him for that. Fresh out of the Juilliard School, he got so much press during a stint with the Charlotte Symphony that he alienated the conductor and some other members of the orchestra. He'll tell you that in 1980, after leaving North Carolina, "I hit New York like a load of bricks." He'll also tell you he considers himself "the foremost solo timpanist," presumably in the world. You could argue that such a claim places him atop a heap of one, but what of it? It's his spot, his turf, and how many little Grammy trophies do you have, smart guy?

The New York Times once wrote of him in a concert review, "Jonathan Haas is a ubiquitous presence in the New York musical world; wherever one finds a percussion instrument waiting to be rubbed, shook, struck or strummed, he is probably nearby, ready to fulfill his duties with consummate expertise." That same review called him a "masterful young percussionist." It also noted, "There was a hint of P.T. Barnum to this entire undertaking."

A Barnum with timpani mallets in his hands. "Hit drum, get check," Johnny H. says, grinning.

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.”

Day 14: Work in progress

I made the longlist for the anthology of profiles I plan to publish next year. The working title of that impending volume is Profilia, and will cover work going back about 35 years. The longlist has 27 names, and I should end up with half that on the shortlist. I need to reread all of them and make up my mind, but so far the probables include:

  • an Irish-American writer
  • a forensic psychiatrist
  • a humorist
  • a thoroughbred horse trainer
  • a deaf boxer
  • a historian of sideshows
  • a novelist
  • a polymathic film editor
  • a sign painter

Much more to be worked out. I would like to get it out in both print and digital form by June 2019. Further bulletins as events warrant.