George Plimpton came onto my radar in 1983, when he famously volunteered to help plan a fireworks display to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Brooklyn Bridge. My son Bo was born on that same night in May, in a hospital room within sight and sound of the spectacular celebration. Afterward, Plimpton, who was already prominent in social and literary circles in New York, was named New York City Fireworks Commissioner; his book about the experience, called “Fireworks,” was published a year later.
During that time, I learned more about his previous work, which seesawed between editing high-brow contemporary fiction at the Paris Review, the literary journal he co-founded and edited (impressive, but not what interested me most about him), and (what did) experiencing and writing about a series of madcap fish-out-of-water adventures. While not limited to participating in professional contact sports for which he was completely untrained, many of his self-effacing, sometimes doomed to failure, always fun, exploits were exactly that.
Plimpton’s obituary from 2003 says, “As a boxer, he had his nose bloodied by Archie Moore at Stillman’s Gym in 1959. As a pitcher he became utterly exhausted and couldn’t finish an exhibition against 16 stars from the National and American Leagues (though he managed to get Willie Mays to pop up). And as a ‘professional’ third-string quarterback, he lost roughly 30 yards during a scrimmage with the Detroit Lions in 1963. He also tried his hand at tennis (Pancho Gonzalez beat him easily), bridge (Oswald Jacoby outmaneuvered him) and golf. With his handicap of 18, he lost badly to Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. In a brief stint as a goaltender for the Boston Bruins, he made the mistake of catching a puck in his gloved hand, and it caused a nasty gash in his pinkie.”
And from these adventurous experiences, he invented a new point of view for writers to communicate human experience. He called it participatory journalism. One of his books, “Paper Lion” (1966), about his time in the NFL, eventually inspired me to quit my job as a television producer and to discover physically demanding adventures for myself, and to write about them. But, unlike Plimpton, I was not willing to show up green and hope for the best. The interest, for me, was (and still is) to analyze the process, discover the wonders, and endure the (sometimes painful) struggle to achieve mastery.
In 1996, after I’d summited Mount Everest, I was introduced to George Plimpton by a mutual acquaintance as I was leaving a restaurant where they were still seated. I was flattered when he said, “I know who you are,” and invited me to visit him at his home office several days later. His wife, Sarah, greeted me at the door, carrying one of their two-year old twins in her arms. She led me through a narrow hallway, past a warren of rooms, into the famously cluttered library overlooking the East River. Plimpton sat at his desk, a manual typewriter within his reach, among papers, books, awards, and mementos layered upon every surface, including the floor. He asked me to recount details about the weather, acclimatization, my team, and the food. His questions would have struck me as childlike and naive, were it not for his well-known worldliness, highly refined demeanor, and patrician lockjaw accent. At the end of the hour we spent together, he summarized his thoughts. “I have greaat-ly enjoyed my liiiifetime of pursuits as an ama-tee-ur. But I really admiii-yah your spirit of aaahd-VEN-ture and com-MIT-ment. That takes pluck. Keep aaaaht it, girl. It will bring you greaaat pleasure.”
This week, I am summoning all my pluck to take the long view—toward finishing the Master’s Qualifier and the possibility of earning scores which will take me to the Games—and to treat sore muscles, bloody hands, a collarbone bruise, and exhaustion rather than dwell on them. I will share some of my recovery practices in a future post. And I hope you will post some of yours with me here in comments.